If a Sarnia Police officer stops you on the street after midnight on Dec. 31 they will need to give you a reason why.
New Ontario regulations that ban random street checks, also known as “carding,” come into effect Jan. 1.
The changes are meant to address the issue of racial profiling by police in larger centres like Toronto, but will have little impact on how Sarnia officers go about their job, said Const. John Sottosanti.
“Other than we have to be more thorough in recording our interactions with people, it’s not going to change how we do our investigations,” he said.
“We’ve been consistently doing it this way. We’re not randomly trying to stop people.”
Currently, an officer can stop and question a person on the street regardless of that person’s role in a police investigation. The data collected can include a citizen’s name, weight, hair and skin colour, and can be kept in a police database indefinitely.
That practice will no longer be permitted in the new year. The new regulations states that police must tell a person why they are being questioned, and depending on the person’s connection to an investigation, allow them to opt out of the conversation.
If that person does speak to police, the officer must provide a receipt: an on-the-spot document that discloses the officer’s name, badge number and the nature of the conversation.
The stopped person will also be provided with contact information for the Independent Police Review Director.
“A lot of it’s precipitated from the Greater Toronto Area, where officers were going through neighborhoods, for instance, and finding out who everybody was that was living in that area,” said Sottosanti.
“So there was arbitrary stopping of individuals for identification.”
The new regulations do not allow suspicious individuals to simply walk away from police, however.
“If we have an investigation in progress, and there’s a viable reason why we should stop a person, we will stop a person,” said Sottosanti.
“You’ll find with a lot of smaller forces from the smaller towns, we know the people because, unfortunately, we’ve either arrested them before or from prior investigations. We know a lot of the regular clients.”
And officers can still collect information if the person is operating a vehicle, under arrest, or the officer has reasonable suspicion that he or she is connected to an investigation.
Random carding came under fire after a Toronto Star analysis of police data found young men of colour were carded 3.4 times more often than young white men.
Other critics said the practice violated charter rights against arbitrary detainment. Essentially, police were asking questions that the person had no legal obligation to answer.
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders defended the practice in 2015, claiming carding helped track and control gang activity.
One Sarnia legal professional doesn’t believe the changes will impact the ability of police to fight crime.
If carding ever worked in the past it was purely by chance, lawyer David Stoesser said.
“A random stop might yield some kind of a clue, in the same fashion that a bolt of lighting may hit somebody in a field,” he said.
“Do random things happen? Sure they do. But for it to be a common practice for an extremely uncommon result, I don’t like it.”