State of emergency in Ontario: What police can and can't do with expanded powers

Toronto Police motorcycles lined up in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Police officers in Ontario will now have the right to stop and have the public identify themselves or face hefty fines for violating their orders, according to a new power granted by the province of Ontario using the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA). 

The province passed the temporary law into place using an emergency order that carries a fine of $1,000 and up to a year imprisonment and $100,000 if someone doesn't cooperate with a provincial offences officer, which includes police officers, First Nations constables, special constables and municipal by-law enforcement officers.

Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act measures in Ontario.

The additional powers granted are a cause for concern for Christopher Rudnicki, a partner and legal counsel at Rusonik, O’Connor, Robbins, Ross, Gorham and Angelini. 

“I’m not sure police needed additional powers, I mean they already have the power to issue appearance notices, issue fines under the EMCPA,” he said.

Currently, emergency orders include the closures of non-essential business, organized public events and gatherings of more than five people and to limit businesses from price gouging.

Anyone who violates an EMCPA order is already subject to a $750, but the new measures could prove to be much more punitive.

“It is essential that measures are in place to allow provincial offences officers to lawfully require an individual to disclose their correct name, date of birth and address in order to protect our communities," said Sylvia Jones, Solicitor General of Ontario. "By providing provincial offences officers with this temporary power to obtain identifying information under the EMCPA, they will be able to enforce emergency orders during these extraordinary times.”

The fines may not be worthwhile, because if someone decides to contest them, the current closures of the judicial system could cause delay and result in a backlog of cases, according to Rudnicki.

Through his years of experience as a criminal defence counsel, Rudnicki claims the law will affect the most vulnerable people in society, and could be a breeding ground for racism and biases to come out.

“We know that every law that there is in Canada disproportionately affects poor people, people with mental illness, people who are addicted, Indigenous and racialized people,” said Rudnicki. “I have no doubt that will happen here.”

Christopher Rudnicki is a lawyer in Toronto

Similar to how stop and searches can go awry where police conduct unlawful searches, Rudnicki is concerned officers will abuse their extra powers using the ongoing pandemic as an excuse.

“You’ll see cases in twelve to eighteen months of an officer who will say ‘I’m just going to search this guy’ and then I’m going to use the COVID-19 laws to justify the search after fact,” he said.

While Rudnicki doesn’t see the inherent value of the new measures of the temporary power, he hopes the province starts focusing less on enforcement and more on pre-emptive measures.

“Empowering police officers to have coercive powers and give fines is just not the way to achieve what you want to achieve,” he said. “I know a lot of police officers through my work, and I’m sure they would be thrilled and prefer to be spending their time helping citizens in need.”

OPP is not pulling over vehicles for having more than one person’

Fake message on Whatsapp warns Ontario drivers that they will be pulled over if they have more than one person in the car with them. OPP has confirmed this is untrue.

However, misinformation had reigned the day, as widespread rumours of the Ontario Provincial Police pulling over vehicles with multiple people went viral.

“OPP is not pulling over vehicles for having more than one person in them.  This started floating around social media and is totally unfounded,” wrote Staff Sergeant Carolle Dionne in an email.

Rudnicki says that as of right now, police have no legal authority to pull people over for simply being in the car and out of the house.

“Police have no lawful authority to say that you can’t have more than one person in a car, or you can’t go to the grocery store...there has been no law or regulation stating this,” he said.

Dionne added that the OPP is hoping Ontarians follow the recommendations of health professionals and respect each other when out. 

The OPP does encourage all Ontarians to voluntarily comply with the recommendations and Emergency Orders set out by the federal and provincial governments in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

According to Rudnicki, the constant changing and adding of laws present challenges for residents, who if they aren’t paying attention, could be caught in a scenario where they’re violating laws without even knowing.

“It can be difficult to tell what to do, and it’s changing day by day, what might have been the law on Friday is not the law on Monday,” said Rudnicki.

Have you been pulled over or questioned while doing essential errands during the pandemic? Let us know by leaving a comment below.