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Victoria police planning illegal Canada Day searches, BCCLA charges

The BC Civil Liberties Association is accusing the Victoria Police Department of planning "illegal" alcohol searches during the city's Canada Day celebrations.

The BCCLA said that documents obtained by a Freedom of Information request demonstrate the police force is planning on doing unwarranted, random searches on transit riders.

"To say that is entirely inflammatory and inappropriate," said Victoria Police Department spokesman Sergeant Grant Hamilton. "Their comment that we are doing randomized mass searches is totally wrong."

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BC Transit banned alcohol on buses during Canada Day in 2009 under the Transit Safety Act - a rule that the police enforce.

Police officers do not do random searches on Canada Day or any other day, Sgt. Hamilton said, adding that all searches are justified in law.

The Liquor Control Act allows police officers to search someone if they have "reasonable and probable grounds" to believe the person possesses alcohol or intends to use it illegally.

BCCLA executive director David Eby said the legal restrictions on searches don't square with the comments made in a police briefing note dated June 2009.

The note states "the past experience of the individual officer conducting the search with similar subjects in similar situations is relevant."

Read the briefing note obtained by the BCCLA (PDF)

The BCCLA interprets this giving police blanket authority to search anyone riding transit based on subjective judgment instead of legal authority, Mr. Eby said.

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"People are allowed to possess alcohol in Canada and there's nothing that the police or BC Transit can do about it," he said. "What grounds do they have that the person is going to use this alcohol illegally?"

The briefing note, however, repeatedly states that "This is NOT a directive to search all prospective BC Transit passengers," and that "Any search must be justified by law."

The association brought a complaint about illegal Canada Day searches to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP in 2008. The decision states that "bag searches are legally justified only if the searching officer has reasonable and probable grounds to believe an offence is being committed and that the bag contains evidence of it."

The Victoria Police Department will conduct its searches according to the law, Sgt. Hamilton said. He said reasonable grounds for searches includes eyewitness accounts of wrongdoing and drinking in public.

Buses are not searched randomly either, said Sgt. Hamilton, and any police action on a bus is driven by complaints from the driver or the public.

If searches aren't conducted legally, the BCCLA is prepared to take the matter to the courts, Mr. Eby said.

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