Know Your Rights Workshop Series: Upholding the Rights of People Who Rely on Public Spaces, Part I

UThis is a two-part article on Pivot Legal Society’s know-your-rights workshop at Oppenheimer Park on December 13. 

Presenters: Anna Cooper (Staff Lawyer – Pivot Legal Society), Erica Grant (Mental Health Peer Researcher – CCAP), Dave Hamm (Peer Facilitator – Pivot Legal Society), Meenakshi Mannoe (Manager of Community Education – Pivot Legal Society) and Samona Marsh (Peer Facilitator – Pivot Legal Society).

Pivot’s presentation was based on two of their recent projects: Project Inclusion: Confronting Anti-Homeless and Anti-Substance User Stigma in BC, a study on the criminalization of those who are homeless and/or use drugs, and their publication Know Your Rights: A guide for people who rely on public space.

This workshop was held in a just recently erected tent at Oppenheimer Park on December 13, where about 100 and possibly more unhoused people are currently tenting under harsh weather. The tenters at the park experience frequent street stops, confiscation of their belongings, invasions of their privacy, and criminalization, alongside homelesness, poverty, and a lack of safe drug supply. Those who rely on public spaces for their survival are vulnerable to more interactions with police and private security, and it’s important that they understand and know their rights in order to protect themselves.

Project Inclusion

In this study, Pivot travelled across British Columbia to hear from those who have faced criminalization while homeless and/or using drugs. The perspectives they gathered echo what many of our community members in the Downtown Eastside have been saying for a long time: the law sets people up to fail. The policies and laws created and enforced by the police, the health care system, and the court system come together to criminalize people who are already at the margins of society. 

The political analysis underlying the study’s findings is that a punitive system focused on incarceration and involuntary treatment identifies the root of social problems as individuals who decide to commit crime. Any system that seeks to abolish the present one must identify the true root causes of “crime” and poverty: capitalism and colonialism. As the study argues, these problems are social and interconnected, not individual. 

A guide for people who rely on public space

Street stops

Experiencing a street stop is different than being detained. Unless you are being detained (which you can determine by asking if you are), you don’t have to stop, answer any questions, or consent to a search of your belongings. Exceptions to this may apply if you are being detained or under arrest, driving a car, or riding a bike. Even under these conditions, you don’t have to say anything without a lawyer other than your name and address, and in the case of detention you don’t even have to give that information.

Sometimes, speaking to police may end an interaction more quickly. However, anything you say to them can justify further investigation. If you decide to speak to the police, do not lie. It’s better to say nothing than to lie (and potentially be charged for obstructing police, or offences related to “Misleading Justice”).)

I’m being detained. What now?

If a police officer tells you that you aren’t free to leave, then you are being detained. You can be detained if a police officer doesn’t have enough evidence to arrest you but are investigating

a crime and have grounds to believe that you are involved in that crime.

You have:

  • The right to remain silent–unless you have committed a bylaw offence, then you must provide only your name and address;
  • The right to be told the reason why you are being detained; and
  • The right to a lawyer right away (and be informed of this right)

During detainment, officers can do a “pat down” search for officer safety – generally this only permits a cursory search for weapons. 

I’m being arrested. What are my rights?

You can be arrested if the police have grounds to believe that you have or are about to commit a criminal offense. 

You have the right:

  • To be told why you are being arrested;
  • To remain silent (other than saying your name and address); and
  • To speak to a lawyer, in most situations

Don’t answer any questions until you have spoken to a lawyer! Once you have asked for a lawyer, the police can’t continue to question you until you have exercised this right.

How can bystanders hold police accountable?

If you are witnessing someone being detained or arrested as a bystander, there are things you can legally do to hold police accountable during interactions.

Following, recording, and observing police are all legal activities, as long as you keep a reasonable distance and aren’t physically interfering with an investigation. As a bystander or someone actively interacting with the police for any reason, you may ask for an officer’s surname and badge number. It is best to not be alone while you document police activities.

If police tell you to stop filming, tell them “It is not illegal to film an officer.”

If police tell you to leave an area, tell them “I am just observing, not interfering.” (If there is a live safety issue, such as a live weapon, you are required to leave.)

If police try to seize your phone or camera, tell them “My phone/camera is not evidence, and I do not consent to you taking it.” If they tell you that your video may produce evidence of a crime, offer to send the video to them.

How can I file a police complaint?

Please note – nearly all police complaints in BC are investigated by either current or previous police officers. This is a serious conflict of interest and there have been many calls for truly independent investigative bodies. 

Municipal police complaints: If you have a complaint about a municipal police officer (such as a VPD officer), contact the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPPC).

RCMP complaints: For complaints about the RCMP, contact the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC).

Death and serious harm: In BC, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigates all police-involved (both municipal and RCMP) incidents resulting in death and serious harm. 

CCAP’s free and public legal education workshops are funded by the Law Foundation of BC. Part 2 can be found in our “Know Our Rights” series tab.