A pair of criminal lawyers say that RCMP officers overstepped their bounds when they entered a Mount Moriah, N.L. home early Sunday morning and the police should provide a clear explanation as to what happened.
Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa, says the police can only legally enter a home if they have a search or arrest warrant, or if there are exigent circumstances, such as a hot pursuit or information that a person is in imminent danger.
“It doesn’t seem like any of those grounds existed here,” Spratt said.
“What seems to have happened here is that the police simply took the easy way, took the law into their own hands and completely disregarded their constitutional obligations.”
On Tuesday, Cortney Pike told CBC News that she was awoken around 5:30 a.m. Sunday by the sounds of footsteps and voices outside her bedroom.
Two RCMP officers had entered the house through an unlocked door looking for a missing 17-year-old girl, Pike said, and questioned her 11-year-old daughter while shining a flashlight in her face.
Pike said the police also told her they came to her home after receiving a report of the missing girl being seen in a red house on the street. She said there are multiple red houses on her street, including one across from her home, but none of their neighbours had any dealings with police on Sunday.
“Believing that the missing girl was in a red house did not give the police the authority to enter all red houses, and it appears that they failed to meet the reasonable probable grounds standard,” says Michelle Johal, a criminal lawyer based in Brampton, Ont. and an active member of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association
“To be honest, it appears in this case that the police were trespassers. In my opinion, they should have known better, they are responsible for enforcing the law and clear guidance has existed for years about the scope of their powers to enter homes without a warrant.”
“If these weren’t police officers, if these were just people, they’d be facing lengthy jail sentences and charges, and perhaps these officers should be facing those consequences too,” he said.
Enter first, ask questions later
Spratt said it appears the RCMP officers decided to “enter a private residence first and ask questions later,” creating a dangerous situation and violating the sanctity of Pike’s home.
“Privacy in your own home is one of the most highly guarded rights in Canadian law.… This is a private place, it’s a sanctuary. But to allow police unexpected, unfettered, unregulated access in the middle of the night, well-armed, into someone’s residence is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“This is how people and police officers get killed, this is how members of the public get injured, this is how tragedy happens, and it seems that the police are a little too casual in the face of what is an inevitable future tragedy if this kind of behaviour continues.”
The police are within their rights to question children, Spratt said, but there’s no reason for the police to enter a child’s room during the night.
“What possible information could this small child have about that incident, why do the police think that that child did have information, those are the questions that the police need to answer,” he said.
Being questioned by a police officer in their own bedroom could also be traumatizing for a young child.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable to shine a flashlight in the eyes of a child in her private bedroom and to ask her questions without her parents being present … I’m sure it was a terrifying experience for her that she will not soon forget,” said Johal.
“Everyone can appreciate here that the police had good intentions, they were looking for a missing girl, that’s part of their job, but the way that this matter was handled certainly raises a number of questions.”
Both Johal and Spratt said the RCMP now have an obligation to investigate and explain what happened at Pike’s home.
“The police are providing, it seems, very little information about what they did and why they did it,” Spratt said.
“It should be incumbent on the police to provide a full explanation about how that situation occurred and it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in doing that in this case.”
Better training, systemic change needed
He said there are issues with ongoing training around constitutional obligations for police officers across the country. It’s possible that some officers are negligent because they haven’t been properly trained, or if officers have been trained, that they’ve disregarded it entirely.
“Both sides of that coin lead to pretty damning conclusions,” said Spratt.
“Incompetent officers, whether it is because they are individually incompetent or systemically incompetent, shouldn’t be armed, shouldn’t be given the authority that we give police officers, and shouldn’t be on the streets and certainly shouldn’t be skulking about in someone’s house in the middle of the night.”
We need real consequences for officers who have either gone rogue or are incompetent.– Michael Spratt
According to Spratt, large-scale systemic change is needed.
“We need better police training, we need to change what the police do to remove a lot of responsibilities from the police and we need real consequences for officers who have either gone rogue or are incompetent,” he said.
“With great power, there also needs to come great responsibility. The system that we have … right now for police forces across the country gives the police officers great power, but we don’t see the insistence on the responsibility aspect.”
Officers acted on tip from missing girl’s caregiver: RCMP
In an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday, the RCMP said police were looking for a youth at risk when entering Pike’s home and were contacted directly by the girl’s caregiver.
“Police look at the totality of the circumstances and information provided,” the spokesperson said.
The force said they have not yet received any complaints related to the matter.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson said Corner Brook RCMP responded and attended a home, given “concerns for the youth’s wellbeing, based on information provided by the complainant.”
“After a sustained period of knocking, doorbell ringing and verbal communication, police entered the residence through an unlocked door, verbally announcing their presence,” the statement read.
“The resident owner was subsequently awakened and confirmed that the missing person was not present.”
A spokesperson with the RCMP’s national communications services said they had nothing to add to the statement from police in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, which has jurisdiction in neighbouring Corner Brook, said the 17-year-old girl had been found and was safe.
Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador