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Montreal, September 17, 2014 --- In a decision that highlights problems within the civilian police complaints handling system, the Quebec Police Commissioner rejected the complaint filed by a Syrian visitor who was wrongly arrested last December by the Laval Police officers.

Apparently, the officers misread her passport and were incorrectly advised by a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) employee. As a result of these officials’ mistakes, she was immediately taken to the Immigration Detention Center in Laval and then subjected to deportation to Syria, until other CBSA authorities realized that the original CBSA officer made a mistake.

The case began one week before Christmas, when the woman, Samira (not her real name), who speaks neither English nor French, was driving a friend’s car and was intercepted by two Laval Police officers for not stopping properly at a stop sign. After checking her driver’s license, the officers demanded to see her passport, which she left at home. Her son had to bring it to the street where she was detained.

After viewing the passport, the officers considered that her visa, which was granted in Amman, Jordan, in March 2013, had expired. However, the expiry date, November 2014, is clearly written in her passport. Furthermore, hers is a category PG-1 visa (also known as a “Super Visa”), which means that she had been granted a 2-year extended stay period in Canada. Samira is visiting her family in Montreal.

Despite Samira and her son’s explanation, the officers consulted on the phone with a CBSA official, who erroneously told them that her visa had expired as there was no such visa category. They proceeded to arrest her on the spot, and tried to handcuff her despite the lack of resistance. When Samira broke down in a state of shock, the officers decided not to use the handcuffs. The officers then drove her straight to the Immigration Detention Center, where she was held overnight.

Samira was transferred the next day to the CBSA office in downtown Montreal, where the same CBSA official began proceedings to deport her to Syria. After her son’s plea that she should not be deported to a country in the midst of a civil war, the official decided on Jordan and ordered her to present herself to the office on in mid-January to get her one-way ticket to Jordan. Due to repeated representations by her family after her release, the CBSA realized the mistake and cancelled her deportation. It issued a simple apology for its employee’s mistake.

With CRARR’s help, Samira filed a complaint with the Police Ethics Commissioner against the two Laval Police officers, for wrongful arrest, unjustified use of handcuffs and failing to read her her constitutional rights. Furthermore, during the arrest in the street, her son asked the officers to let him contact a lawyer, he was told not to as there was nothing he could do.

After reviewing the complaint at the preliminary stage, Deputy Police Commissioner Hélène Tremblay dismissed it on the basis that it was the CBSA official who misinformed the officers about the visa, and that the latters were “justified in transporting [Samira] to the CBSA Immigration Detention Center.” In addition, Deputy Commissioner Tremblay concluded that “as for the alleged violation of constitutional rights…., we are forced to conclude that we cannot, in the established context, usefully expect to establish by a preponderance of evidence the allegations pertaining to this aspect of the complaint.”

In assessing the case, the Deputy Commissioner apparently examined only the complaint and the “relevant operational documents”, which allowed her to find that “the police officers involved recorded in their report a concurring and exculpatory version, both with regard to the reasons justifying the complainant’s arrest and the methods used to carry it out.” In other words, the Deputy Commissioner relied on the police reports as evidence; the officers were not interviewed at this stage.

Under Quebec's Police Act, officers cited in a police ethics complaint are legally authorized to decline to cooperate with the Commissioner if and when an investigation is launched. This legislative exemption is considered an outdated pro-police flaw of the system.

CRARR immediately helped Samira file for a review of the decision, which it considered flawed on two points. First, it is unclear whether the Deputy Commissioner had a copy of Samira’s passport with the clearly written date of expiry on it before she reached her decision to dismiss. The question is why the officers acted as they did, despite this expiry date of the visa. A copy of this visa was not submitted in the complaint and the Commissioner’s office did not ask for it.

Secondly, before, during and after Samira’s arrest, her son was never asked to interpret and inform her of her rights in Arabic. It is also obvious that neither officer speaks Arabic.

“Since my mother does not speak or understand English or French, and since I served as interpreter, how did the officers inform her of her constitutional rights during her arrest? How could they ensure that she understood her rights?”, said Mahmoud, her son.

In addition to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which the Police Ethics Commissioner is obliged to enforce in his functions, specifically guarantees that “every person arrested or detained has a right to be promptly informed, in a language he understands, of the grounds of his arrest or detention” and “every person arrested or detained has a right to immediately advise his next of kin thereof and to have recourse to the assistance of an advocate. He has a right to be informed promptly of those rights.”

The decision in this case raises important questions about the treatment of police ethics complaints from individuals, especially foreign nationals, visitors or refugees, who speak neither Canada’s official languages and who believe that their rights are violated by the police during detention or arrest.

The hasty benefit of the doubt given to the police reports (“a concurring and exculpatory version”), the oversight of the language factor in the officers’ communications with Samira as well as the failure to take into consideration available documentary and other evidence that may support the allegations by Samira, her son and another witness, illustrate the systemic barriers within the police ethics system that often lead to the dismissal of citizens’ complaints at the early stage.

“The police reports and their so-called “concurring and exculpatory version” were not disclosed to us for review and comments, so are we expected to completely trust in what is written in these reports?”, asks CRARR’s Executive Director Fo Niemi.

The final decision on the application for review is pending.