Talking to the Police - LawNow Magazine

Talking to the Police

Online law columnThe police are key players in the criminal justice system. “To prevent crime and to make sure that there is order in the community, police officers are given special powers to search, arrest and detain any individual who is committing, has committed or who is believed to have committed a criminal offence. However, these powers are limited by certain basic rights guaranteed to all Canadians in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” (Criminal Law and Procedure, CLEA)

There are quite a range of plain language materials available to help citizens understand their rights and responsibilities in relating to the police. Since both the Criminal Code and the Charter are federal laws, this information applies across the country, although many publications also include lists of local resources.

Resources for Adults

A good general overview of this topic is covered by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in their 12-page booklet “Know Your Rights: A Citizen’s Guide to Rights When Dealing With Police”. It covers the questions:

  • What if I am stopped by the police?
  • What if I am stopped by the police while driving?
  • When can the police search me?
  • What are my rights if I am arrested?
  • What if the police come to my home?
  • How do I make a complaint about the police?” (This section provides resources for every province as well as a national resource for the RCMP.)

From Community Legal Education Ontario comes a similar publication, “Police Powers: Stops and Searches”, which is also available in French, Spanish, Urdu, Arabic and American Sign Language (video). In “Arrest”, the Public Legal Education Association in Saskatchewan explains that whether or not the police can question you depends on the situation. The Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick describes their bilingual booklet “The Law, The Police and You: Your Rights When Questioned, Detained or Arrested / La loi, la police et vous: vos droits pendant un interrogatoire, une détention ou une arrestation” in this way:

The purpose of this booklet is to provide a general outline of your rights and responsibilities when you come into contact with the police in public. What should you do or say – and, not do or say – when you are questioned or detained by the police? What are your rights if the police arrest you?

Another exploration of questions related to talking to the police comes from the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia. Their publication “You and the Police/Sur la police” also addresses questions about lie detectors, photographs and fingerprints, and the powers of private security guards.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association offers considerable detail on the topic in “The Arrest Handbook”(62 p.). It is important to remember that criminal law deals with young people between the ages of 12 and 18 somewhat differently from adults through the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Note that some of the legislation discussed is specific to B.C. It also broadens its discussion to include citizen or private security arrests, other agency search powers, civil disobedience and anti-terrorist legislation. This publication is also available in Arabic, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Educaloi uses its short article “Rights during a detention or arrest/ Droits d’une personne en cas d’arrestation ou de detention” to zero in on the nature of three specific rights: to know the reasons; to speak to a lawyer; and to remain silent.

An Alberta law firm, Pringle Chivers Sparks Tesky, takes a bit different approach in their information sheet “What You Need to Know if the Police Want to Speak With You” including looking at such issues as what you might want to know if you think the police are investigating you; whether there is such a thing as an “off the record” conversation with the police; and whether asking to speak with a lawyer might make you “look guilty”.

People’s Law School has a two page fact sheet “Talking to the Police” from which you can learn the basics about criminal law and the role of the police, reporting a crime and being a witness in court, being arrested, and going to court.

Community workers may find themselves struggling to support clients facing criminal charges. They could find help in a recorded webinar from Legal Aid Ontario. “Helping Clients Deal with Criminal Arrest” covers legal rights, the criminal charge cycle and bail process, and what services and supports are available to clients, especially with regard to helping vulnerable clients.

Resources for Youth

It is important to remember that criminal law deals with young people between the ages of 12 and 18 somewhat differently from adults through the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association offers a short script, “Young People and Criminal Law”, which discusses the rights of young people if stopped and questioned by the police, if arrested, or if charged with an offence. This is also available in Chinese (simplified; PDF), Punjabi (PDF) and Mandarin (audio/podcast).

Meanwhile, the Public Legal Education Association in Saskatchewan provides “Busted” with information about the Youth Criminal Justice Act, rights on arrest, being charged and detained or released.

Community Legal Education Ontario has created the Youth Criminal Law website specifically for young people accused of committing a crime. It includes a section on “Talking to the Police” and has a parallel site in French that can be accessed with the “Français button” in the top right of the page.

A community group from Toronto has reached out to youth with its video “Know Your Rights” which provides information about their rights when dealing with police, an understanding of powers of arrest, detention, and search, strategies to deal with situations relating to police contact, and an understanding of what recourse is available when someone experiences an abuse of police power.


We need the police to have the authority to address crime. We also need to have protections against indiscriminate use of that authority. Public legal education resources can help us understand the balance between the necessary powers of the police and the necessary rights of citizens.


Marilyn Doyle
Marilyn Doyle
Marilyn Doyle is a library technician in Edmonton.

A Publication of CPLEA