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posted October 17, 2005

Local Lawyer Witnesses Illegal Police Search at the Park

From email correspondence:

E-mail from J.P., October 17, 2005:

On my walk through the park to Blockbuster last night (between 6:30 & 7 pm) I saw three police around two young black guys by the washroom. The police were doing a full search of one fellow. After going through a minute search of every nook and cranny of his jacket and pants a very small baggie with pot fell to the ground. They immediately slammed him on the picnic table and cuffed him. At this point I spoke up and said "you're not allowed to do that--you can't search someone you haven't charged". They ignored me and appeared to be trying to provoke the fellow by speaking about dealing etc. He was answering back so I shifted my attention to him and said "don't answer their questions, they're not allowed to do this--speak with a lawyer." The police asked me did I want the park filled with drugs and then one of them came up to me and said I had to move away because he was accessing confidential information on his police radio. Not having been in this situation before, I started to feel unsure of what more I could do.

After I walked away, I wished I'd asked for their names and badge numbers and that will definitely be what I'll do if I find myself in a similar situation again. They were still there when I came back from the video store, so I again just stood nearby. They had cuffed the second guy, but they then let him go and he rode away on his bike.

A few things struck me from this incident (other than the obvious about the police behaviour and how it certainly doesn't assist creating dialogue in our community). It really didn't appear that the two fellows had any idea about their rights.

Response from Jutta Mason:

It may be that these guys didn't know their rights or it may be that they are on probation for something and therefore they know they can be searched without being charged. Most of the youth at the park do have a pretty sophisticated grasp of the law but they also have lots of experience with what can happen in the real world, and they're careful.

About the police asking you to move: last year a group of us had a session with a shinny hockey player whose also a lawyer. This man had just written an article for a law journal about the charge of "obstruct police." He said that if police tell bystanders that they are not allowed to observe, that's wrong. But people need to say politely and clearly,"officer, I don't want to get in your way, I will just stand over here." Understandably, police don't like the feeling that someone is watching from behind nor that they are being crowded as they're working. But a person standing a little distance away (not far), where the officer can see them easily, is perfectly legal. This lawyer also said that if an officer still wanted to lay a charge of obnstruction even after these rules are followed, he (the lawyer) would gladly defend anyone from the park for free.

What you did yesterday is the very best thing -- stand and witness. It's not unnoticed by the black youth that a white person has stood up for them. There's a small but growing number of people in the park who are concerned by what the police have been doing, and who are prepared to do what you did -- I mean, simply stay and watch, even if the police challenge them (they usually do). I can't tell you how much that has improved the "chilly climate" that used to exist in the park between the black guys and everyone else. No cloud without its silver lining!

And you're a brave lady.

Response from J.P.:

I didn't think about the probation aspect (criminal law not being my "thing"). If you hear from anyone at the park that probation was not an issue in last night's arrest, I am happy to be a witness to the fact the police did an unlawful search. I must say it definitely is easier to "stand and witness" when you are a middle aged, middle class white woman, so I can't say I feel particularly brave.

From Jutta Mason:

I asked around at the park and found out who the two were. Apparently the man who was taken away was released at the station. I'll talk to him when I see him around the park. At some point one of these young men may have to take the police to court for unlawful search, since it's become so common at the park. But I think these guys are perhaps worried that they'll be even more targeted if they try to fight it.

It's important to note that many of these guys are not saints -- many are on parole or probation, although mainly for smaller offences. I've seen some of them around the park for years, and I've watched some of those folks "turn the corner," in a better direction, and been glad for them. But beyond that -- people who have done time in the past or are on probation still have some rights, maybe?

There's an old Muslim tale about somebody looking under a lamp post for a lost key, even though that's not where they lost it, "because the light's brighter over here." No kidding. Yesterday there was that awful shooting of the bus driver in Scarborough, and we need the police to find those people and arrest them. The problem is that there seems to be almost a correlation between a crime somewhere and a search of that same black group of youth at at Dufferin Grove Park -- because the police know where these guys hang out, not hidden, right out in the open -- searching them is so easy. But it's such a sad vicious circle -- who will cooperate with the police when it counts, remembering how they behaved at other times?

Content last modified on May 19, 2008, at 09:07 PM EST