As we reported earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in an appeal from a Quebec case in which a woman was arrested and ticketed by police for refusing to hold the handrail on an escalator at a metro station in Laval.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision, finding in favour of the commuter.
In 2009, a female commuter was arrested and ticketed by a Laval police officer for refusing to hold onto an escalator handrail. A pictogram on the escalator depicted a stick-figure holding the handrail which stated “Caution, hold the handrail” in French. The commuter contested the tickets in municipal court and was acquitted. She then filed a lawsuit against the city and the police officer for $24,000 for moral damages, pain, suffering and exemplary damages. She also sued the transit corporation for $45,000 for moral and punitive damages.
The police officer and the city argued that the police officer was merely enforcing the transit corporation’s regulation, which stated that it was prohibited for any person to “disobey a directive or pictogram” posted by the transit corporation.
Lower Court Decisions
The Court of Quebec rejected the commuter’s claims. The court found that the police officer’s conduct was, under the circumstances, exemplary and beyond reproach. It also rejected the commuter’s arguments against the transit corporation, finding that the rules and guidelines were clear. It also found that the commuter had behaved in an inconceivable manner by refusing to comply with the officer’s order.
The Quebec Court of Appeal rejected the commuter’s appeal and agreed with the lower court’s decision
Supreme Court of Canada Decision
The court found that a reasonable police officer in the same circumstances would not have considered failure to hold the handrail to be an offence. The police officer therefore committed a fault when he arrested the commuter. The court explained that police officers cannot avoid personal civil liability simply by arguing that they were merely carrying out an order that they knew or ought to have known was unlawful.
In this case, the court concluded that the police officer committed a civil fault by ordering the commuter to identify herself and by arresting her and conducting a search for disobeying the pictogram which indicated that the handrail should be held. It found that a reasonable police officer in the same circumstances would not have concluded that disobeying the pictogram was an offence under a by‑law; instead, a reasonable police officer would have concluded that the pictogram simply advised users to be careful. Therefore, the officer’s conduct necessarily constituted a fault because it resulted from an unreasonable belief in the existence of an offence that did not exist in law.
The court further found that the transit corporation committed a fault by teaching police officers that the pictogram in question imposed an obligation to hold the handrail. It stated that the transit corporation committed a direct fault in the implementation of the relevant by‑law by providing training that suggested to police officers that holding the handrail was an obligation pursuant to the by‑law. The transit corporation was obligated to ensure that the training would be appropriate and would reflect the law. Because the police officer was found to be at fault for believing that holding the handrail was an obligation, the transit corporation was equally at fault for misinterpreting the by‑law and providing training accordingly. The court also found the transit corporation liable as mandator for the police officer’s fault.
Finally, the court found that the commuter was entitled to refuse to obey an unlawful order, and she therefore committed no fault that would justify an apportionment of liability. The court stated that unless a statutory provision or common law rule clearly imposes it, there is no obligation to identify oneself to, or indeed to cooperate with, a police officer; a reasonable, prudent and diligent person is not under an obligation to obey an unlawful order.
As a result, the court allowed the appeal and apportioned half of the liability to the transit corporation and the other half to the police officer. The court set the damages owed to the commuter at $20,000.
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