Published on February 13, 2014
The province wants to give police more power to collect information in missing-persons cases.
A bill introduced to the legislature Thursday would allow police to get a court order forcing someone to hand over a missing person’s records, such as health records or a hotel registration.
It would also allow police to seek a court order to enter a private home or other location where they believe a minor, vulnerable person or person at risk is. It would let police force the hand over of the records of a person last seen with, or believed to be in the company of, a missing minor, vulnerable person or person at risk.
And in some emergencies, police would be able to go ahead without waiting for a court order.
“Vancouver police gets between 3,000 and 4,000 missing persons reports every year,” said Vancouver police spokesman Const. Brian Montague. “This has the potential to help in some cases.”
The BC Civil Liberties Association believes the new law is flawed and said information collected to help find a missing persons could later be used in criminal proceedings.
“Very few people would disagree with the principle of making information available in a missing person’s inquiry,” said policy director Micheal Vonn. “What will happen with that information once it’s acquired? We have some concerns, even at this preliminary stage, that the legislation allows data that is collected to be used in criminal proceedings.
“One of the things we would of course suggest is that there be an absolute prohibition on using any of the information that is sought for the purposes of finding missing persons to then (be used to) prosecute them. There should be an absolute prohibition on that and there is not.”
The Justice Ministry says the proposed law is consistent with recommendations of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which said the province should “grant speedy access to personal information of missing persons without unduly infringing on privacy rights.”
Montague said the VPD tries to strike a balance between an individual’s privacy and conducting an investigation.
“But in some missing person’s cases, time is of the essence. The quicker and easier we get information, the (greater) potential to save someone’s life. … We don’t want somebody’s privacy hampering our ability to find someone.”
The proposed law deals with two types of people: those that haven’t been seen or in touch with people normally involved in their lives, and vulnerable or at-risk persons whose safety and welfare are of concern because of their age, physical or mental capabilities, or the circumstances of their absence.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the bill strikes a good balance between access to key information and privacy rights.
“This legislation acknowledges that access to relevant records can sometimes mean the difference between life and death,” said Anton. “It also strikes a critical balance between disclosing and protecting information, with the safety and welfare of vulnerable people as its paramount goal.”
She told reporters that police need these tools.
“When someone is missing, you don’t know that it’s a criminal offence. You don’t know that the person might have just gone away. There may be all kinds of reasons why they’re unaccounted for, so you can’t assume it’s criminal at that point. What this does is give the police civil remedies to go and search records, to make inquiries and to search for somebody.”
She said if police have evidence of a criminal offence such as kidnapping or assault, they already have a lot of power to get phone records, financial and job particulars, and other restricted information about a missing person who may be at risk.
She said the types of records sought by police could include welfare and health records. “You might go into a hotel and see if a person was staying there or not.”
The act would also authorize police to directly demand access to records in an emergency situation such as a risk of serious harm to a missing person or a concern that records could be destroyed.