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I had moved out of shared house with roommates and now live in another shared house with other roommates. Today a police officer came to the door asking to speak to me. The conversation started off strangely. At first he said it’s good I admitted who I was. Then he said “so what’s up” and when I didn’t reply he said “start speaking”. He then asked if I knew why he was there and I said “no clue” and he slowly inched into it. When I moved out of the old house I accidentally took a box that wasn’t mine. I guess they called the cops and told them I had stole it and wasn’t returning it.

My old landlord was a jerk and after I moved out he sent a whole bunch of nonsense text messages, for example getting mad at another person living in the house with me (there’s no element of truth to this). After a bit I ignored his text messages and one of them was “Did you take something from the attic that wasn’t yours?” to which I replied no. Other than this there was never any conversation. Recently, I did notice there was a box with my stuff that I didn’t recognize and the police officer said that fit the description of what was missing so I gave it to him. It was a rather uncomfortable situation as I explained it could have been my current roommate’s belongings and they weren’t home at the time. But the cop checked the box so I guess any mistake is on him.

My questions are

  1. When do the police get involved?
  2. must the police officer clearly state the reason he is here? For example it sure was strange having him come to the door, ask for me, and say “start talking”.
  3. When do the police have the right to resolve/conclude an issue? For all I know my old landlord could have made up a random list of things missing and I happened to have them then the cop could take them? I know in this situation I gave the cop permission, but could I have denied it e.g. “I don’t care what my what my old landlord told you, you don't have my permission to take the box, please leave.”

I’m thinking of calling the police officer and mentioning I was uninformed that the issue existed before he came to the house. I would also like to ask if I’m in trouble. Any advice?

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Any advice?

No. https://law.stackexchange.com/help/disclaimer

But in terms of background topics that may be interest to readers...

Police have two sets of powers. One is their formal legal powers; the other resides in the magic of their position of authority in the community.

Typical formal powers of police include:

  • Arrest persons
  • Apply for and execute search warrants
  • Enter premises without a warrant in an emergency
  • Carry firearms
  • Direct traffic

(Some of the above can be exercised by members of the public in some jurisdictions.)

Informal police powers include:

  • Saying things and being believed to be telling the truth.
  • People thinking that if they hand property to them then they will give the property to its rightful owner.
  • People stop shouting and carrying on like a banana in public when a police officer tells them to.
  • People just generally doing what the police tell them to do.

Obviously the observance of the informal powers varies from citizen to citizen.

Other than the above, a police is just an ordinary person. They can do whatever they like.

Police have no power to 'resolve' a dispute.

Theft is a criminal offence and the police can deal with that by, among other means, asking the offender to give the property back so that everybody can move on with their lives without the costs associated with a criminal charge.

Police can't, for instance, interview the parties to a dispute (e.g. the complainant and the alleged offender) and then decide 'OK, the box belongs to X' and then take the box by force. That's the role of a court; that is, the landlord would sue you and the court would resolve the dispute and order you to hand back the box. Police can informally facilitate a negotiated settlement but they can't force anyone to do anything. (However, if a court did resolve the dispute by making an order, police could conceivably be involved in executing that order.)

A police station (or individual police officer) will receive many reports and complaints from the public, on top of whatever patrols they need to do, or activities to support criminal investigations, etc. The choice of what matters they get involved in is very discretionary. They might respond, they might just note a report as intelligence, they might ignore some things, they might get a warrant to kick down your door, it all depends on what they think is in the best interests of the community they serve.

I don't know Canadian law but the police officer probably had no power to take that box from you without your consent. If the box rightfully belongs to your roommate and the police officer does not give it to them, then you may have committed a tort (conversion) against the roommate by giving away his box, and the roommate could sue you for the cost of whatever is in the box.

Conceivably you could argue that the police officer themselves committed conversion when they psychologically intimidated you into handing over the box. There is a case in South Australia where a police officer committed the tort of false imprisonment by psychological coercion, by asking the plaintiff to come with him, and the plaintiff assumed he could not refuse: Symes v Mahon [1922] SAStRp 57. I don't have anywhere near enough facts to say whether the police officer coerced you, and I would not be confident in saying that the argument would work in any event.

  • One other thing was I certainly never said the police officer could take the box, in fact I said I'd prefer to check with my roommates first. Though I don't know if the cop could argue I didn't explicitly tell him not to take it. – MrMurphy Jun 9 '16 at 6:37
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At least in the U.S.:

  • Police get involved when they feel like it, or when a superior officer orders them to.
  • Police have authority to investigate crimes, stop crimes in progress, and cite or arrest people they have probable cause to believe have committed a crime.
  • Police can lie in the course of their official duties. Police don’t have to tell you anything unless they are detaining or arresting you, in which case they only have to tell you that. In many states nobody but sworn officers of the law or court can even see reports or information until the police have closed any investigation they have decided to pursue. They close investigations when they feel like it or when a superior officer orders them to.

We don’t offer legal advice on this site. But I’ll point out that police and lawyers broadly agree that, legally, the best advice is to never talk to police. (Just google “Don’t talk to police…” to get started….)

  • Sorry, I'm not very familiar with legal activity so could you rephrase that without the hyperbole? Obviously the police don't just "get involved when they feel like it". Also I still don't see when police can make a decision, so as long as you can convince a police officer you're telling the truth, he can use his power to take something (in this case a box)? Also I get what you mean it's technically true a police officer doesn't have to tell you anything, but without a warrant they can't just let themselves in. – MrMurphy Jun 7 '16 at 22:47
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    My answer may not apply in Canada, but it's not hyperbole for the U.S. – feetwet Jun 8 '16 at 1:43
  • I mean, if I told a cop my old roommate stole my oven gloves, he probably wouldn't track them down and get them back. I just don't know how this happened and guess they told the cop a bs story. – MrMurphy Jun 9 '16 at 6:39
  • In many places in the world, people who own property—such as a landlord—already have a decent working relationship with local officials of some kind since they own property. It’s not a conspiracy, but when you own property the chances of you having far more casual contact with police, fire and utility workers is much higher. Thus in this case, the landlord could have simply mentioned your issue when there was some casual interaction and then the officer—or someone else—took it from there. – JakeGould Jun 23 '16 at 14:59

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