What To Do If You Get Pulled Over by Police in Ontario

June 21, 2024

police pulling over

There are several reasons why the police may want to stop you, so today, we will look at some of these reasons, what to do, and the limitations of what the police are allowed to do.

Reasons Police Officers Can Stop Vehicles

In Canada, the police have the legal authority to stop individuals on the belief they are committing, have recently committed, or are about to commit an offence. However, section 9 of the Canadian Charter of Rights guarantees the right to be free from arbitrary detention and arrest. Its purpose is to protect individuals from unjustified police interference.

In interpreting the breadth of the authority of the police to stop drivers under the Highway Traffic Act (HTA), courts have historically expressed concern that the allowance of too broad a discretion could lead to abuse. In particular, an HTA violation can easily be alleged to mask a detention that was, in fact, based on improper or unlawful motives. For example, choosing to stop the younger driver over the older one, the owner of an older or cheaper car over the one who drives a more expensive or a more commonly driven car; or, a person who is a member of a visible minority group.

As a result, the law imposes strict limitations on the police authority to ensure that routine traffic stops do not trench on individual rights. Lawful highway traffic investigation will follow into the following categories:

  • checking the driver’s licence and insurance;
  • mechanical fitness of the vehicle;
  • the sobriety of the driver; and,
  • a violation of high traffic laws, such as speeding

A vehicle that is stopped for highway traffic investigation may be detained for a reasonable length of time to carry out their investigations, but it must relate to the purpose for the lawful stop. Once stopped, the only questions that may justifiably be asked are those related to driving offences. Any further, more intrusive procedures could only be undertaken based upon reasonable and probable grounds. As stated by the Supreme Court of Canada, “Random stop programs must not be turned into a means of conducting either an unfounded general inquisition or an unreasonable search.”

police pulling over

Where a stop is found to be unlawful, the evidence from the stop could well be excluded under s. 24(2) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Where a stop is initiated pursuant to the HTA, the police are not precluded from conducting a simultaneous criminal investigation, provided they have sufficient grounds to do so. For example,  if a police officer stops a vehicle for an HTA infraction and in speaking to the driver detects the odour of alcohol, the authority to commence an impaired driving investigation is obvious.

However, importantly, a highway traffic act concern cannot “be used as a pretext, ruse, or subterfuge” to conduct a criminal investigation. In plain language, the police cannot pretend to stop the vehicle for highway traffic purposes (such as to check its mechanical fitness or whether the driver is licensed) when the real reason is simply to inquire whether its occupants are “up to no good.”

It would clearly violate s. 9 of the Charter to use Highway Traffic Act grounds as a mere “ruse” or “pretext” for a broad and unfounded criminal investigation.

That was the issue in my recent Superior Court of Justice case of R. v. R.A.  In this decision, the police were on general patrol when they stopped my client’s vehicle for having a tinted license plate cover. A search of the vehicle lead to the discovery of a firearm under the seat where R.A. was sitting. Cross-examination of the officers exposed repeated material inconsistencies between their evidence and their live body worn cameras. In the end, the trial judge accepted our argument, finding that the police officers were neither credible or reliable, and that the stop of the vehicle was in fact a ruse to conduct a criminal investigation. The court found multiple breaches of R.A.’s constitutional rights (right to counsel under s.10(b); detention under s. 9, and search under s. 8), resulting in the firearm being excluded from evidence and the ultimate dismissal of all charges.

As this case exemplifies, while the police power to investigate highway traffic act matters is broad, it is not endless. The police cannot use traffic stops to engage in “fishing expeditions” to determine whether drivers or passengers are engaged in general criminal conduct. If the police do so, they have crossed the line, resulting in a breach of your Charter rights.

police pulling over

What To Do When Pulled Over By Police

When the police signal you to pull over, slow down and look for the closest safe place. If safe spots are limited, slow down further and turn on your emergency flashers to show the officer you are doing your best to comply. 

After  stopping, turn off your engine, as the officer would likely ask you to turn it off anyway.

If the stop happens at night, turn on the interior overhead light to give visibility inside the vehicle.

All passengers should remain in the vehicle unless there is a legitimate reason to exit. 

Roll down the window and await the officer to attend. As the driver of the vehicle, you are required to identify yourself and provide the necessary driver documents (driver’s license, ownership and insurance).

Even if you disagree with the reasons for the stop, engage with the officer in a respectful manner. Nothing is to be gained from being rude or offensive. Put another way, yelling and screaming will not get you away from a traffic ticket, but being polite just might!

Remember Your Rights

Remember that based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; you have distinct rights that police are obliged to abide by if they pull you over. These rights include:

Right to Know the Reason for the Stop — generally, police are trained to advise drivers of the reason behind a stop, but if they don’t, they must provide you with the reason for the stop if asked.

Right to Privacy — police must have a warrant, consent, or a reasonable belief that you or the vehicle possesses evidence of a crime to lawfully search you or your vehicle. If a judge deems the search to be unreasonable, a judge could declare the search unlawful and disallow any evidence obtained in this search. 

Right to Be Informed of the Charges — if you are being detained, the police must tell you what charges you are facing and inform you of your right to consult a lawyer.

Right to Record Your Interaction with Police — you have the right to record your interaction with the police; however, you must ensure you are not interfering with the police officer’s performance of their duty. 

Speak With a Lawyer Today

If police have stopped you and have been charged with an offence, contact the experienced criminal lawyers of Fedorowicz Law today for legal advice. Richard Fedorowicz has over 20 years of experience in criminal defence and a proven track record of success. He will fully assess any elements of a criminal case that could help the most effective defence for each of his Greater Toronto Area clients.

Call Fedorowicz Law today at 249-266-4222 or fill out our convenient online form to learn how we can help you with your criminal defence in Toronto!