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Bus searches will violate Transit Act and Charter: rights group

VANCOUVER - Victoria transit authorities will be in violation of both the British Columbia Transit Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if they impose mandatory searches for alcohol on bus passengers this Canada Day, said the BC Civil Liberties Association today.

“There’s nothing unlawful with taking a sealed container of beer, wine, alcohol, from point A to point B,” said Robert Holmes, President of the BCCLA.

“For them to try to elevate it to something that denies you the right to take public transit is just silly. It’s ludicrous.”

This week B.C. Transit announced that passengers in Victoria on Canada Day will have their bags searched if they are suspected of carrying alcohol, and that passengers will be denied access to the bus if alcohol is found, even if un-opened.

Last year, the BCCLA filed a complaint against the Victoria Police Department for conducting unwarranted searches for alcohol on Canada Day. In a public investigation into the complaint, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP ruled that the searches were unlawful.

Now, the BCCLA is complaining to the commission that Victoria Police are willfully trying to thwart that ruling by allowing Victoria transit authorities to do the same, and applauding the effort.

They say the policy discriminates against public transit users, encourages drinking and driving, and breaches every Canadian citizen’s right not to be searched.

“Authorities need to have reason to believe that you have committed some kind of offense. If all they know is that it’s Canada Day, and you’re carrying a purse, how do they concoct reasonable ground for believing that an offense is being committed? They just can’t,” said Holmes.

The commission investigation also found the policy a breach of the BC Transit Act:

The transit employee's power to deny the use of a transit vehicle is contingent upon the person's disobedience of a sign or failure to comply with rules. The disobedience or failure must be established before the employee may take such action.

The regulation does not authorize the transit employee to search the passenger or would-be passenger in order to determine whether the person is disobeying or not complying. It is not the source of a power to search passengers' bags.

Holmes said instead of denying citizens their right to public transit, the city of Victoria should be stepping up police presence in areas where Canada Day celebrations are occurring.

Enforcing policy that breaches the rights of Canadians on Canada Day, he said, would be an embarrassment.

“Doing so on Canada’s national holiday when we should be focusing on all the good things we have to celebrate about in this country including the charter of rights and freedoms, it’s just ludicrous.”

The BCCLA is encouraging any citizens denied access to public transit on Canada Day to seek legal counsel against B.C. Transit.

Neither the Victoria Police, nor B.C. Transit were able to be reached for comment by publication time.

Christine McLaren writes for the Tyee

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