QUESTION: Do the police in Canada have to tell you that they are cops if you ask them?
As criminal defence lawyers in Canada, we are often asked this question, do undercover police officers have to tell you that they are cops if you ask them? The short answer is NO. Police officers acting in an undercover capacity do not have to inform you that they are cops, even if you ask them point-blank, they can lie right to your face.
It is surprising how many of our clients and people in Canada generally believe the notion that the police cannot lie to you about their true identities. I am not sure where this myth came from or why it has developed into such a strongly held belief by some, but it is a dangerous notion. We have seen several clients who have believed this myth and gotten into quite a bit of trouble.
The interaction usually follows a similar script, we will have a client who is subjected to an undercover operation, during this operation our client will often ask the operators if they are police, the police then lie to our client denying that they are cops, our client will then continue to interact with the undercovers feeling safe because they have done their due diligence, believing their new friends or business partners cannot be cops, because cops can’t lie when asked the question, are you a police officer.
I am sure you can imagine the end result of this, our client is arrested and charged, and often with very significant offences. And the main problem that we as defence lawyers have with the question “do the police have to tell you they are cops if you ask them?” is that we are always asked this too late. We are only ever asked this question after someone has fallen into the trap outlined above and been arrested and charged. Therefore, we wanted to write this blog to pre-emptively answer this question, but also to let you know that police in Canada can lie to you about whether they are police, but they can also do other things to make you believe that there is no way they could be cops.
What the police can do to convince you they are not cops
Police can lie to you whether you ask if they are cops. There are a variety of tactics that undercover cops can, and will do, to convince you that they are not actually police. Most of the time we see these tactics used in the course of “Mr. Big” operations. A “Mr. Big” operation is a famous Canadian police tactic that essentially allows the police to create a fake criminal organization that eventually generates a confession from a suspect through a variety of different means.
Much has been written regarding “Mr. Big” operations in Canada and the purpose of this blog is not to go into any great detail about them. Instead, I want to focus on specific police tactics undercover officers will use to make people believe they are not the police, as I said these often occur in the course of Mr. Big operations, but not exclusively so.
Here are some of the tactics the police will do to convince you they are not police:
- A frequently used tactic by undercover operators is to show the suspect illegal, or what are perceived to be, illegal firearms. These can be handguns, shotguns, or even guns like AK-47s, and the police can actively show them and handle them in front of suspects.
- Many of our clients who have been ensnared by undercover operations believed that there was no way the people they were interacting with could be police, because how could they have all those guns laying about. Well, they can, and they likely will.
Fake beat downs
- These usually occur in the context of “Mr. Big” operations, but the police are actually permitted in Canada to pretend to violently assault someone. I say pretend, but this “simulated”, or “fake” violence can often seem very real.
- Police will likely make sure that the suspect themselves cannot get in on the violence but that does not prevent these skilled undercover operators from making this violence seem very real. You also have to remember that these cops are committed, so the undercover operators that are on the receiving end of the beatdown won’t be afraid to take a couple of real shots just to make sure they sell it.
They will commit crimes
- Undercover cops will also commit crimes, like a fake beat down, but it can also go much further than that. They can participate in what will appear to be gun trafficking deals, drug deals, international smuggling, theft, identity fraud, all sorts of crime.
- Therefore, if your new friends or business partners appear to be hardened criminals, don’t let that fool you, undercover operators will often engage in criminal activity, and serious criminal activity, it’s all fake of course, but for the person standing on the outside looking in, it won’t seem fake.
Handle tons of cash
- Undercover cops don’t have a shortage of cash, in fact, often they will do whatever they can to demonstrate to suspects that they are super rich and successful criminals. This is part of their allure but is also another tactic to make suspects believe that they are not cops.
- So again, if your new friends and business partners are a little too quick to flash the cash, they may not be the big-time gangsters they claim to be, in fact, they might be the opposite.
- They also promise suspects future payments or cash. In one case I read, the police pretended to be a publishing firm and offered a suspect a book deal if he wrote about his role in a kidnapping offence. This man fell for it and gave up information believing that it was going to make him a wealthy author. Instead, he went to jail.
Offer to destroy or falsify evidence
- Undercover officers can and often will offer to destroy or remove key evidence in the case against a suspect. Even real evidence that the suspect may not be aware that the actual police know about.
- However, usually in order to take advantage of this generous offer the suspect will be required to tell them something about the crime that they committed.
- Also, sometimes the undercover operators will pretend to destroy some evidence to show the suspect that they are capable of destroying more, usually to incentivize the suspect into leading them to or giving them more evidence to “destroy.”
- Another common tactic used particularly in “Mr. Big” cases is undercover operators will tell suspects that they have a friend or associate that is either dying or is in jail for the rest of their life. Therefore, if you tell them about the crime that person will confess and remove the suspicion from the suspect once and for all.
- For someone suspected of a serious crime, this must seem simply too good to be true, and it is, but it surprising how effective this tactic is.
Stage a fake car accident
- This one is particularized to “Mr. Big” operations but we have seen a few times where the police will actually make contact with the suspect by having an undercover officer crash into a suspect’s vehicle. The undercover, sometimes a good-looking female depending on the gender of the suspect, will then profusely apologize and offer to fix the vehicle outside of insurance.
- The suspect will usually then be given a big wad of cash to fix the car, or the car will be brought into a body shop and fixed for free. After that point, the indoctrination process begins, and the suspect is brought into a fake criminal organization.
- This one may not be that accurate because this may not be particular to undercover police, but in our experience, undercover operators like to swear, so if your new friends and business partners are a little too loose with the f-bombs, they may be cops.
What police cannot do
One thing that the police are never allowed to do is overtly threaten a suspect with violence nor can they commit violence against a suspect. In fact, in the course of an undercover operation, particularly a “Mr. Big” operation, the undercover operators will try to make sure that the suspect knows that they are in no danger of violence from the undercover operators.
They may pretend to be violent people and may hint at violence, but they can never threaten or inflict violence upon a suspect. So, if you are wondering if your new friends or business partners are cops, maybe ask them to punch you in the face.
Don’t fall for it
In Canada, our courts and judicial system have given the police the power to lie, cheat and steal during undercover operations, it’s all part of the game. So, don’t fall into the trap that we keep seeing. There is no requirement for undercover police to tell you that they are cops, even if you ask, in fact they will do the opposite, and do various things to make you believe that there is no way they could be cops.
If you are interested in hearing more about “Mr. Big” operations stay tuned for our January blog release. We are currently in the process of litigating a very interesting Mr. Big case, and we will likely have an update in January, so check back then.