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NWT judge got traffic stop rules wrong, court finds

Yellowknife's courthouse
Yellowknife's courthouse. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

An impaired driving case will head back to court, more than three years since the initial incident, after a judge was ruled to have misunderstood the law.

The case involves a man who was pulled over in Fort Resolution in April 2019 after an RCMP officer received a tip that the man had driven away from his parents’ home while drunk.

In 2021, a territorial court judge ruled that the police officer “did not have grounds to detain the respondent for the purposes of confirming his sobriety.”

The judge decided the traffic stop was a breach of the charter right not to be arbitrarily detained.



“The only outside information that the peace officer gathered is that this van is being driven on the street,” the judge said at the time.

“But what is the objective information that gives reasonable grounds, before he stops the vehicle, that the driver’s ability to drive is impaired by alcohol?”

The judge decided detaining the driver required reasonable grounds to believe the driver had committed an offence, and ruled the police officer did not have those grounds. As a result, the evidence of a subsequent breath test was excluded and the man was acquitted.

However, the Crown appealed and Supreme Court Justice Shannon Smallwood this week, in the politest possible terms, told the territorial court judge they got it wrong.



“With respect,” Smallwood’s ruling read in part, “I do not believe that to be the state of the law with respect to the traffic stops of a motor vehicle on a highway to check the sobriety of the driver.”

Smallwood said past cases had confirmed police officers in Canada do indeed have the authority to “conduct random vehicle stops for reasons related to driving a car, including checking the sobriety of the driver.”

Smallwood clarified that police can only use that power for reasons related to driving safety.

“The existence of these powers does not automatically make traffic stops lawful, because the police are not free to use these powers for other purposes,” she stated in a written decision released this week.

If police “do not have road safety purposes in mind” and do not have some other legal authority to back them up, a traffic stop is not legal, Smallwood continued.

“A court must determine whether the police officer actually formed the intention to make the traffic stop for road safety purposes.”

In this instance, Smallwood said, the evidence suggests the RCMP officer stopped the vehicle legally, “to investigate the sobriety of the driver.”

The verdict means the case will now return to territorial court for an entirely new trial at a date to be arranged.