Part One of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Decisions In The Sniffer Dog Cases: Don’t Throw Out The Principle With The Bath Water!

Question: When is a legal principle clarified by unanimous court but when the principle must subsequently be applied, unanimity goes out the window? Answer: When the Supreme Court of Canada delivers a much anticipated and needed decision on an issue, which, depending on the outcome, may change the face of police investigatory practice. That is the case, of course, in the two sniffer dog decisions in Chehil and MacKenzie, which were supposed to clarify the standard of “reasonable suspicion.” However, instead of the much-needed direction from the Court, the Supreme Court of Canada leaves us with a ruling that fails to clarify. As we all know, legal principles do not live in a vacuum and if they cannot be applied consistently and with some prediction, then the principle becomes a tool of the law and not the rule of law.

Still, the cases do tell us something, about which I have consistently written: that a seemingly objective standard is a fallacy as it is applied through the subjective sensibilities of the assessor, the judge, and in the context of facts, which themselves are founded on a subjective view of the receiver. Chehil and MacKenzie are cases in point: Chehil sets out the principle, to which everyone on the Court agrees, while MacKenzie applies it through the judicial lens. Unfortunately, the judicial lens is of varying strengths and degrees: not everyone on the Court sees matters the same way. The decision is therefore a fractious one. If our Supreme Court of Canada cannot agree then how can the majority, written by Justice Moldaver as I predicted, find the trial judge, who heard the evidence, is wrong. Can one even be wrong when applying an objective reasonable person standard? Are there two reasonable people? Do we even know how a reasonable person thinks? Ah, there’s the rub and there is the tautology: objective standards are only as good as the facts behind them.

If the above seems like a rant, well I suppose it is: the decisions, when read together are puzzling. Moldaver’s MacKenzie decision is even more so when read against the trial judge’s reasons. Unfortunately, one cannot get beyond the admonition of the trial judge when he found it possible “that the observations of the accused claimed to have been noticed by Cst. Sperle were enhanced after the drugs were located.” This kind of after the fact decision-making seems to permeate the SCC decision too but understandably so as in fact there were drugs found and the accused was a drug courier. But what we must all keep in mind is the purpose of the Charter is not to exonerate criminals but to provide oversight when the awesome powers of the state are used,  in whatever circumstances. Just as innocent people may come under scrutiny in a criminal investigation, as pointed out by Madame Justice Karakatsanis in Chehil, so too seemingly guilty people will benefit from inappropriate state intrusion. This is what safeguards our fundamental principles in a free and democratic society.

It is in this context that we must review and analyze these cases. In part two of my case comment, I will do just that.