5 Things to Never Do if Stopped by Police on a Highway

Most of my criminal defence practice covers about 300 kilometres of Canada’s busiest highway, running from the Quebec-Ontario border in the east to Belleville in the west. While my work often involves helping individuals who live in the communities like Cornwall, Brockville and Kingston that are arrayed along that Eastern Ontario stretch of the Highway 401 (is there anyone who actually calls it by its official Macdonald-Cartier Freeway name?), it’s especially common for me to assist those who who were just passing through - often on their way to or from Montreal or Toronto, and points further east and west. They might get stopped by police along that all so busy corridor for one minor reason or another, but then things escalate.

If you’re ever stopped, I can offer you my top 5 things to never do if stopped by police on the highway. 

1. Lie to the Police

Yes, I know this one seems obvious. But police stops are stressful experiences. We can all do stupid things. We might not be thinking clearly. Often, you’ll have done nothing wrong, but lying to police can constitute the criminal offence of obstructing justice. So don’t give a false name. Don’t give a false birthdate. Don’t lie about where you are going, or what you are doing. 

2. Volunteer Information

No one has a legal duty to help the police, beyond providing very limited information mandated by law. If the police ask you about your name, you likely need to give it to them. If you are driving, you need to provide a driver’s licence, registration, proof of insurance, and limited other driving-related information if asked. But the police generally can’t force you to talk, regardless of whether you are the target of an investigation, a witness to an event, or just someone they casually encounter. 

3. Refuse to Provide Driving-related Information if Driving

Because driving a motor vehicle is a privilege, and not a right, the police can force you to talk about your driving. Beyond providing documents, if you’re involved in an accident the police can demand your side of the story. For regulatory purposes, there’s no right to remain silent. This rules also applies to other regulated activities, like when a regulatory agency is investigating your fishing activities, your hunting activities, or your income tax return.

A regulatory investigation can’t gather information compelled from you predominantly for the purpose of incriminating and charging you. But that can be the end result. Federal and provincial legislation creates many “information demand” powers in the regulatory context, but not in the criminal context. So a lawful drug manufacturer can be forced to talk, but an illegal drug dealer can’t. 

4. Refuse to Provide a Breath Sample

Even if you’ve been drinking, you very well might not be over the legal limit of alcohol in blood concentration, or otherwise impaired. But if you refuse a police demand to provide a breath sample, what your blood-alcohol level really was becomes irrelevant. Refusing to provide a sample is as serious of an offence as impaired driving or over .08.

There is a mandatory minimum fine upon conviction for refusing to blow, meaning you’re guaranteed to acquire a criminal record. So don’t worry about whether the demand for a sample is legal or not - let your lawyer worry about that later - just cooperate. That advice applies to all police activity. A search could be illegal, an arrest could be illegal, these are all things your lawyer might be able to raise later at your trial, and the illegality might very well lead to your acquittal. But don’t try to figure them out the lawfulness at the time of the events. Just let the police do their thing. 

5. Agree to a Search of Your Vehicle or Person

I get that there can be lots of psychological pressure to agree to a polite request “to take a peek in your trunk, just for a minute” even if you have 10 kilos of neatly packaged powder cocaine sitting in that trunk (true story, it happened on the Trans Canada Highway, and the driver did indeed say something to the effect of “No, I don’t mind of all, go ahead”). Either the police have the power to search, or they don’t. Sometimes they can lawfully search incident to arrest for evidence related to the offence they have reasonable and probable grounds to arrest for. At other times they will need a search warrant to conduct such a search. You should never try to obstruct their searching; but you shouldn’t consent to it.