When the police stop to talk with you on the street, what are your rights? 

Hamilton Police acknowledge they ask questions and for identification from pedestrians, sometimes collecting that information even when that person isn't part of a crime investigation. And so the question is coming up about what rights a person has in that situation. 

But even while they want more people to know their rights, anti-racism and privacy advocates caution there is a fine line between asserting your rights and being confrontational and provocative.

"Police have certain limited rights to come up to someone and ask them a question," said Howard Morton, a former prosecutor and member of the Law Union in Toronto, a network of lawyers and law students who have advocated for an end to "carding," Toronto Police's practice of gathering information and IDs on contact cards from people who are not under investigation.

That Toronto practice is currently suspended in the wake of controversy. Meanwhile, Hamilton Police acknowledge they stop citizens on the street and sometimes keep records of those interactions.

"Every individual has the absolute right not to respond, not to answer questions," Morton said. "Very, very few people know that. And even when they know it, the police have certain tactics they can use." 

Hamilton Police road safety app

Hamilton Police app includes a section on 'your rights'. (Hamilton Police)

As part of their fight against racial bias in policing, Hamilton anti-racism advocates who met with the Hamilton Police recently want police to help get the word out about what rights come into play. Police say information included in their road safety smartphone app and online in a printed brochure help spread that word.

"While you are usually not required to produce identification (unless you are operating a motor vehicle), it is advisable to be polite and answer the officer’s questions," the police information states. "An officer may ask to speak with you for reasons that may not be immediately clear. Your cooperation with police is greatly appreciated as together we enhance public safety."

'An absolute right' not to say anything

Police can ask people on the street any question they want. But unless the person is driving or biking, under investigation for a crime or suspected of committing another offence, such as being drunk in public, that person is not required to show ID, or answer the questions. 

"Officers respect a citizen's right to not engage," said Hamilton Police spokeswoman Catherine Martin, as part of the service's response to an earlier CBC Hamilton story last week. 

Human rights lawyers like Morton argue that police officers who stop citizens for information on the street when they are not under investigation violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

"Every person has an absolute right guaranteed by the Charter not to say anything to the police," Morton said. "But quite frankly, the police can't do their job if people don't cooperate. We want to encourage people to cooperate by creating a better way."

A casual series of questions starts differently than an arrest, when a person is warned her or she doesn't have to talk without a lawyer present. 

"When somebody's just approached on the street, [police] don't have to tell people that they do not have to answer," he said. "That's one of the things that we've been pushing in Toronto: To make it a requirement that people are made aware of their rights."

'Be polite, don't be rude, comply with what they're asking'

Hamilton Police app index

A page on the Hamilton Police road safety smartphone app suggests an approach for citizens interacting with the police. (Hamilton Police)

But that knowledge and how it comes into play in real-life situations can be very different.

Riaz Sayani-Mulji is a law student at the University of Toronto and a youth worker in Hamilton. 

He said the "know your rights" campaigns have led to some altercations with police, where young people are armed with new knowledge that may not be respected in individual cases.

He said he tells young people he knows to "be polite, don't be rude, comply with what they're asking." 

"If there's room to advocate, advocate," he said. "But don't provoke. You might have to get 'carded' but you can deal with that later. Your life and your safety is more important."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett