strip search

Strip Searches in Ontario are Occurring Too Often

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

A new report released by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (an independent civilian oversight agency responsible for overseeing all complaints regarding the police in Ontario) concludes that police officers in Ontario are conducting unnecessary, and sometimes unlawful, strip searches which interfere with privacy rights and negatively impact criminal court cases.

Gerry McNeilly, the Independent Police Review Director since June 2008, authored the report entitled “Breaking The Golden Rule:  A Review of Police Strip Searches in Ontario” (the “report”).

WHAT IS A STRIP SEARCH?

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of R. v. Golden (“Golden”), defined the elements of a strip search and explained how strip searches are to be lawfully conducted.  A strip search is defined as the removal or rearrangement of some or all of someone’s clothing to allow for an officer to visually inspect their genitals, buttocks, breasts or undergarments.   

The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized the importance of preventing unjustified strip searches and recognized that these searches are “inherently humiliating and degrading for detainees regardless of the manner in which they are carried out and for this reason they cannot be carried out simply as a matter of routine policy”.

The Court went on to explain that strip searches are only constitutionally valid when they are “conducted as an incident to a lawful arrest for the purpose of discovering weapons in the detainee’s possession or evidence related to the reason for the arrest.  In addition, the police must establish reasonable and probable grounds justifying the strip search in addition to reasonable and probable grounds justifying the arrest”.

However, despite this decision, it has been found that courts in Ontario repeatedly find that strip searches conducted by police officers are unlawful or unreasonable, resulting in the exclusion of evidence or the stay of charges.

STRIP SEARCH FINDINGS BY THE NUMBERS

The report found that police in Ontario conduct approximately 22,000 strip searches a year, with the majority being conducted by Toronto Police Service. 

According to the report, in 2016 Toronto police conducted 17,654 strip searches (occurring in approximately 37.5% of all arrests that year).  Strip searches were found to have occurred in more than 40% of all arrests in Toronto in 2014 and 2015.  This was found to be 40 times higher than the rate of strip searches conducted by police services in Hamilton, Durham Region, Ottawa, Windsor and the Ontario Provincial Police during the same time period.

A spokesperson for the Toronto police, Meaghan Gray, has advised that the Toronto police are “addressing the challenges and sensitivities associated to strip searches for the last few years”.  Toronto police are reviewing procedures and training of their officers and have recently launched a full body scan pilot project, which is aimed at reducing strip searches.  Ms. Gray emphasized that when strip searches are conducted appropriately, “they can be a necessary safety requirement resulting in the seizure of weapons and drugs which pose a significant risk to the person and those around them.”

According to the report, since the ruling in the case of Golden, Toronto police were involved in 40 of the 89 criminal court decisions where a judge found that a police strip search had violated the defendant’s Charter rights.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The report provides a template for strip search procedures and a sample strip search form.  The report also offers 50 recommendations on how Ontario police services should conduct, document, and train their officers on strip searches.  These recommendations include, but are not limited to the following:

  • ensure that all police services comprehend the law regarding strip searches and the implications of violations;
  • enhance training for strip searches and incorporate strip searches into police services annual or biennial training;
  • clearly define what constitutes a strip search in keeping with the Supreme Court ruling in Golden;
  • strip searches should ordinarily be authorized in advance and be carried out by an officer of the same gender;
  • every Ontario police service should be made aware of judicial findings of Charter violations in strip search cases, and take measures to address the issues raised;
  • all Ontario police service must keep accurate statistics of the number of persons arrested or detained, the number of persons strip searched, and the justifications provided for conducted strip searches; and
  • statistics kept by Ontario police service should identify the race of the person subjected to a strip search in an effort to evaluate whether race plays a role in the decision to conduct strip searches.

We will continue to follow any developments in the news and in case law regarding strip searches in Ontario and will provide updates in this blog as they become available. 

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our clients’ rights.  We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.