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Rioters in Vancouver June 15, 2011 after Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Rioters in Vancouver June 15, 2011 after Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

POLICING

The trouble in thwarting drunken rowdies Add to ...

I’m pretty sure I understand the Vancouver Police Department’s thinking behind its Stanley Cup Playoff Plan. One of the parking lots I walk through regularly near Rogers Arena still bears the scars of where a pair of police cars went up in flames.

Not this time. Not again.

But speaking with Vancouver police Constable Lindsey Houghton this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with another police officer more than 12 years ago.

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Her name was Constable Anne Drennan. The Vancouver Police Department's media liaison officer, she was, from the public's point of view, the face and the voice of the VPD.

The subject was how to curb the drunken rowdies who routinely marred the city's annual fireworks festival. Police decided that the best way to maintain order in such a large and concentrated crowd was to search people as they exited a downtown SkyTrain station and confiscate any liquor they might be carrying.

The line from police then was that leaving a SkyTrain station carrying a backpack or bag on a fireworks night constituted reasonable grounds for a search.

I asked Constable Drennan what would happen if someone didn't consent to a search. Her reply was blunt: “They will be searched.”

And they were, by the thousands. And after rifling through backpacks, purses and gym bags, police were somehow able to determine that the thousands of bottles of wine and beer contained within were going to be consumed illegally and therefore needed to be confiscated.

Of course, the searches ended up being the subject of complaints by the BC Civil Liberties Association, and the VPD eventually issued an apology.

Fast forward 13 years.

Constable Houghton told me this week that Translink Police will be monitoring trains on game nights, putting into effect their "liquor interdiction strategy" with many more officers visible on the street when riders get off the train.

It’s hard to argue against pulling drunk and disorderly people off the trains, ticketing them and even arresting them if need be. The same goes for people who are drinking liquor on transit or anywhere else in public where doing so is prohibited.

What Constable Houghton is talking about, though, is something entirely different. "If people are possessing liquor for an unlawful purpose, that is to wander around downtown and drink it openly, then they're going to be facing a $230 ticket and we're going to take that liquor from you," he said.

Sound familiar?

As for how police are able to determine whether the liquor is going to be consumed illegally (as opposed to, say, taken to friend's living room and consumed there), Constable Houghton said: "That will depend almost entirely on the context of the conversation you have with police, and whether you can show that you are not possessing that liquor for an unlawful purpose."

Constable Houghton's comments aren't sitting well with the BC Civil Liberties Association. "The whole notion that you have a reverse onus, that you better explain to us that you are not going to be conducting yourself unlawfully, it's very problematic," said Micheal Vonn, the association's policy director. "You can't look for liquor based on ‘spidey sense.’ There is a constitutional standard and unless you meet that standard, you're not operating within the law."

To be clear, so far we're not talking about funnelling transit passengers through checkpoints to have their bags searched by police, as was the case in 1999. We're talking about cases where someone might be carrying a six-pack of beer, or a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag.

But Ms. Vonn says searches are inevitable.

"People aren't coming downtown with a six-pack under their arm, they're coming down with a six-pack in their bag, so we are talking about searches." If police ask to look in your bag they need reasonable grounds to do so, and the fact that the bag may contain alcohol isn't enough, that's not illegal. They need probable grounds to determine that you are likely to use it for some unlawful purpose."

And having a conversation with police? Ms. Vonn says it's important for people to remember that they have a right not to engage in that discussion.

So what can police do, within the bounds of the law and that pesky Constitution to prevent drunken hooligans from mounting a sequel to last year's fiasco?

Ms. Vonn says she has no issue with increasing the number of police on the street and no trouble with those officers acting when they see the law being broken.

All of this, though, will be moot if people heed the advice of Constable Houghton. "There will be no reason for people to come downtown because there will be no public viewing."

Hmm. Don't come downtown, huh? That sounds familiar, too.



Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver. 88.1 FM and 690 AM. @cbcstephenquinn on Twitter

 

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