Why the handrail verdict matters: There must 'always be a legal basis' for police actions
TORONTO -- A civil rights group has welcomed a decision by Canada’s highest court to award $20,000 in damages to a woman who was arrested for not holding an escalator handrail.
The decision by the Supreme Court of Canada follows a decade-long legal battle by Montreal woman Bela Kosoian, who was a student at the time of her arrest in 2009.
She was walking down an escalator in the Montmorency metro station in Laval when a police officer ordered her several times to respect a sign that said in French, “Caution, hold the handrail.”
“It’s written ‘caution,’ so we are not forced to hold the handrail,” Kosoian said after the SCC ruled in her favour.
“Police has to be accountable. It was very hard, I was afraid and I did not want to be in public and I was hiding. It should never have gone to the supreme court, but they were resisting, they were pushing.
“We have principals. Rule of law applies to everybody and nobody is above the law. They cannot abuse their power to punish people for not breaking any laws. They have to be reasonable when applying law.”
At the time of the incident Kosoian argued with the officer, who detained her for 30 minutes and searched her bag. She was later released with a $100 fine and given a $320 ticket for failing to identify herself.
“This decision is a great victory for the constitutional rights of citizens, of ordinary Canadians who when faced with an abuse of police conduct…an illegal order of a police officer, that citizens can disobey and fight back in order to protect their constitutional rights,” said Fo Niemi from the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR), who represented Kosoian.
Niemi added that Kosoian is an immigrant from a country where “abuse of power by the state was quite obvious.”
“This is one reason why Ms. Kosoian felt she cannot allow the situation to happen to her and to many other people who are as ordinary and possibly as helpless as she was then,” Niemi added.
Kosoian was acquitted in municipal court in 2012.
She then filed a lawsuit against the City of Laval, police officer Fabio Camacho and the Société de transport de Montréal (STM). She lost twice in Quebec court. The SCC took up the case in 2018.
"A reasonable police officer in the same circumstances would not have considered failure to hold the handrail to be an offence," the SCC stated in its judgment.
"The police officer, therefore, committed a fault when he arrested K [Kosoian]. The STM committed a fault by teaching police officers that the pictogram in question imposed an obligation to hold the handrail, a fault that explains -- at least in part -- the officer’s conduct."
The SCC ruled that the city must also be held liable for the officer's fault.
"As for K [Kosoian], she was entitled to refuse to obey an unlawful order, and she, therefore, committed no fault that would justify an apportionment of liability," the judgment continued.
The court ruled that the "risk of abuse is undeniable" and therefore, there must "always be a legal basis for the actions taken by police officers; in the absence of such justification, their conduct is unlawful and cannot be tolerated."
The judgment insists that police officers cannot simply argue they were carrying out an order they "knew or ought to have known" was unlawful.
"[The STM] had to ensure that the training would be appropriate and that it would reflect the law," the SCC stated.
"If the police officer was at fault for believing that holding the handrail was an obligation, the STM was equally at fault for misinterpreting the bylaw and providing training accordingly."
The SCC states Kosoian must be paid $20,000 in damages. The police officer and the STM are each liable for half the amount.
--- With files from CTV News Montreal’s Rachel Lau