Yesterday’s police involved shooting in East Vancouver raised new questions about property rights and police powers, after officers demanded witnesses to the incident turn their phones over to investigators.
But can police really force you to give up your device?
Doug King, the police accountability campaigner with the Pivot Legal Society says the issue is a lot more complicated than police make it out to be.
King says he’s not surprised to hear about police asking people for their phones, and that this has been an ongoing issue for the last decade.
In response to questions about the incident, VPD Constable Brian Montague issued a statement to CKNW explaining the force’s position.
“Police are able to seize electronic equipment including camera equipped cellphones that may afford evidence in a criminal investigation. Camera owners are encouraged to voluntarily provide the footage to police negating the need to seize the phone, the tech crime unit will then work quickly to obtain any relevant footage and then return the camera as soon as possible, but in the rare circumstance where police believe the camera owner may destroy the images the officer has the lawful authority to seize the camera.”
King says that’s mostly correct, but that the police are perhaps overestimating their powers.
He says in the wake of the death of Robert Dziekanski at YVR, the law has come down more clearly on the side of property owners.
“[The person who shot the video of Dziekanski’s tazering] had to go to grave lengths to get it back, but it was clearly established that it is the property rights and the ownership rights of the person who owns the camera and took the video. I think the police are correct in saying that they have the ability to get a copy of the video for the purposes of the investigation. I don’t know whether or not its so clear to say that they have the ability to seize it.”
King rather than a person having to work to get their device back, it should be the police who need to prove why they should have the phone.
No need to surrender
He says in the case of this week’s shooting, people refusing to give up their phones were well within their rights.
“A video of something like this is something that can be duplicated. There’s no reason why both the individual who took the video and the police who are investigating can’t both have a copy.”
King says there’s no disputing the police’s need for evidence of this nature, but that it doesn’t mean the issue needs to be a case of surrender the phone or deny police the video.
King says there’s one easy solution to a conflict like this: technology.
“At the end of the day, all of these questions really can be resolved for the most part if we finally started to move towards implementation of getting body cameras on officers. We rely far too heavily on the public for images of police misconduct.”
He says the idea has been held up by problems of cost, storage, and privacy rights.
But King says with initiative on the part of the province, those issues can be ironed out, eliminating the need for police to be aggressive about getting their hands on your phone.