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Passengers kept on an airplane at the Winnipeg airport for more than an hour to be individually interviewed about a missing flight attendant’s passport were “unlawfully detained” by police, legal experts suggest.
When an Air Canada crew member’s passport went missing during a domestic flight from Montreal to Winnipeg Sunday night, passengers were asked to come forward with any information. When the plane touched down at the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport and the document was still missing, two RCMP officers came on board to take statements from each person on the jet. Some passengers waited to be interrogated for at least 90 minutes after the plane landed, said passenger Jonah Levy, an 18-year-old Montreal native.
“It’s a very interesting situation … I certainly think the police acted outside of their lawful power and authority,” said Joshua Rogala, a criminal defence lawyer in Winnipeg, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“In detaining all the passengers on the plane without the reasonable suspicion that a particular individual committed the theft, the police violated the passengers rights not to be arbitrarily detained.”
Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, every person has the right not to be arbitrarily detained and those who are detained have a right to be informed of the reasons for their detention and their right to seek a lawyer.
The Charter also states everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, which the RCMP officers breached in taking photos of the passports of all the passengers they interviewed, Rogala added.
“I certainly think the police acted outside of their lawful power and authority.” – Joshua Rogala, a criminal defence lawyer in Winnipeg
When the jet landed, crew members asked the passengers to search their seats for the missing passport, Levy said. The 18-year-old, who flew to Winnipeg for a summer camp job, said everyone searched the airplane for five minutes until they heard the attendant over the speaker again. An Air Canada attendant then asked passengers to co-operate with police while officers interrogated each passenger, he said. One by one, each passenger was questioned and the Mounties took down their personal information, Levy said, adding he gave an officer his home address and phone number.
The officers also snapped photos of passenger passports and identification, said both Levy and passenger Ruth Swan — who spoke to the Free Press about the incident on Monday.
Levy said his friend, who was on the plane with him, called his dad, who practices law, to ask if there was anything they could do at the time. His friend’s dad didn’t know, Levy said.
“When the police officers stepped into the plane, my heart skipped a beat. It was like ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen now. Is someone going to get arrested?’ I pictured something from a viral video, someone getting dragged off a plane.
“It started getting really hot and that’s when it kind of felt like I was in a cage.”
A media relations officer said RCMP were alerted about the missing passport on an inbound flight from Montreal around 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
The investigation is still underway because the passport hasn’t been found, RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel wrote in a statement to the Free Press Wednesday. Seel wrote that the situation was “unique” and officers “responded appropriately.”
“Police needed to speak to everyone on the plane regarding culpability in relation to the theft of a passport, and that was communicated to the passengers.”
Those who needed to depart were “dealt with and de-planed immediately,” Seel added.
Gabor Lukacs, an air travel passenger activist, said he’s never heard of this sort of situation before.
“I don’t think detaining the whole plane was a proportionate action,” he said. “This wasn’t the first time something’s gone missing on an aircraft.”
Dan Manning, a criminal defence lawyer in Winnipeg, said he doesn’t think police acted appropriately either; he doesn’t understand why police wouldn’t have let the passengers off the plane and question them elsewhere in the terminal. That noted, Manning said he doesn’t think the situation was anything more than police “preserving the peace.” The passengers could’ve declined to speak, he added.
“The police are entitled to ask civilians questions, and that’s not a detention in itself.”
However, by Air Canada and the RCMP acting in tandem, Manning said he can imagine the passengers would have felt like it was a detainment.
“And it sounds like the airline was happy to subject their passengers to police questioning,” he said. Between calling the police and making the passengers wait on the plane for nearly two hours, Manning said it was simply “very poor customer service.”
Lukacs, the industry activist, said he also questions if Air Canada would have taken the same measures had a passenger been the one to lose their passport.
“There’s an appearance of two laws: one for Air Canada and one for the average passenger, and that would be wrong.”
Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline could not provide any additional comment Wednesday because the situation has become a police matter.