TORONTO – An Ontario court has ruled that Toronto’s police chief has no right to demand members of the public undergo a search when attending meetings of the force’s board.
Justice Jill Copeland of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice said requiring a search ahead of the meetings, which are held at police headquarters, infringes on freedom of expression by limiting access to gatherings that are open to the public.
In a decision released Monday, Copeland rejected the police chief’s arguments that the searches are necessary given today’s “changing security landscape.”
“I accept that limiting political expression was not the chief of police’s purpose. However the effect of the searches is to limit expression by making public access to TPSB meetings contingent on submitting to a warrantless search,” Copeland wrote.
“In this case, the individual is required to make a choice to give up their right to privacy, in particular the right to be free from a warrantless search, conducted without reasonable and probable grounds or even reasonable suspicion, or give up his or her right to freedom of expression to attend the meeting.”
The decision also found that accessing the meetings remotely was not equal to attending them in person.
Copeland said that her findings only pertain to police board meetings, which by law must be open to the public, and noted that people entering Toronto police headquarters for other purposes may still be asked to undergo a search.
Kristian Langenfeld, the regular police board meeting attendee who launched the complaint, did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Toronto Police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said the force is reviewing the decision, adding she does not yet know if there are plans to appeal.
“We will certainly look to implement any changes that are deemed appropriate in light of the decision and comments by the justice,” she said, adding there was no immediate word on whether the searches would be suspended at the next police services board meeting scheduled for this Thursday.
Copeland’s decision did not explore all aspects of the search policy, which was established last June at the behest of Chief Mark Saunders. The policy states that anyone entering Toronto police headquarters, including members of the public and media, must be scanned with a metal-detecting wand and agree to have their bags searched if they wish to enter the premises.
Copeland focused solely on police board meetings, which are required to be open to the public under the terms of Ontario’s Police Services Act.
The decision upheld the complaint by Langenfeld, who had regularly attended police board meetings since 2013 but stopped doing so in 2017 when the search policy went into effect. Langenfeld, who represented himself in the proceedings, argued the search was unconstitutional when applied to a public meeting.
Saunders had argued that the aim of the policy was to establish security measures similar to the ones increasingly in use at sports venues, concerts and other large public gatherings, the decision said. He also submitted opinions from security experts asserting the security landscape is different today that it was even a few years ago.
Saunders had also asserted that no freedom of expression was being infringed, since would-be attendees had the option to tune in to board meetings online and make submissions remotely.
Copeland dismissed that argument, siding with Langenfeld who contended the experiences were not equivalent. He argued making submissions remotely deprived attendees of the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.
Copeland’s ruling concluded with a declaration that searching people attending police board meetings is unconstitutional and that the chief does not have the legal authority to impose the searches under two specific acts cited before court.
People entering police headquarters for other purposes may still be subjected to searches, since the building is also used for private purposes such as office space.