Sections 25.1 to 25.4 – Law Enforcement Justification Provisions: Episode 32 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In this episode we will discuss what is known as the law enforcement justification provisions, proclaimed in force on February 1, 2002, as found under a compendium of sections from 25.1 to 25.4. These sections acknowledge certain police investigatory practices will involve the commission of offences, particularly where officers operate in a covert or undercover capacity. The most well known investigatory technique subject to these sections would be the “Mr. Big” investigations, which have attracted Supreme Court of Canada notice through the recent cases of Hart and Mack. For a further discussion of the many issues arising in such investigations, I highly recommend Mr. Big: Exposing Undercover Investigations in Canada by Kouri Keenan and Joan Brockman, who are from the excellent criminology faculty at Simon Fraser University.

The sections themselves were created in response to the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Campbell, wherein the court found that police were not immune from criminal liability as a result of unlawful conduct even if it was executed in good faith and to further a criminal investigation. The Court thus called upon Parliament to legislate such protection, which it did under these sections.

Although these sections make provision for investigators to commit offences in the course of their investigatory duties, the sections also create a mechanism for parliamentary and civilian oversight of such exceptional investigatory techniques. Thus, s. 25.1 contemplates a “competent authority” such as the Federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness or, the applicable provincial equivalents such as in the case of Alberta, the Solicitor General and Minister of Justice, who has the authority to designate “public officers” to act in these investigatory capacities. In addition to this designation, there must be civilian oversight or a “public authority”, in accordance with 25.1(3.1) “composed of persons who are not peace officers that may review the public officer’s conduct.” Furthermore, the designating Minister, under s. 25.1(4) must designate such public officers upon the advice of a “senior official,” who is a member of a law enforcement agency and has been so designated to act as a senior official by the Minister. In some ways, this designation process is rather self-fulfilling or circular considering the actual ministerial official who is receiving the advice chooses or designates the advising official. Upon receiving the senior official’s advice, the Minister must make the public officer designation on the basis of “law enforcement generally” rather on the basis of a specific law enforcement activity or investigation. Therefore, such designation must be viewed in the broader context of law enforcement, according to 25.1(4), and not done on a case-by-case basis. As with many ministerial decisions, this is the only articulated criterion for the designation, which leaves such designation open to broad discretion.

The senior official or advisor to the Minister has broader powers permitting the temporary designation of a public officer without the competent authority, under s. 25.1(6), under exigent circumstances, wherein it is not feasible to have the competent authority or Minister perform the designation and where the public officer would be justified in the circumstances in acting contrary to the Criminal Code. The circumstances of such a designation are set out under 25.1(7) and the justification for such conduct as found under 25.1(8), being that the senior official believes on reasonable grounds that “the commission of the act or omission, as compared to the nature of the offence or criminal activity being investigated, is reasonable and proportional in the circumstances, having regard to such matters as the nature of the act or omission, the nature of the investigation and the reasonable availability of other means for carrying out the public officer’s law enforcement duties.”  In such exigent circumstances the senior official must notify the Minister of this action “without delay.” This requirement, I would suggest, seems rather contradictory. The purpose of the notification would be to ensure that such actions are not taken without the knowledge of the Minister but in order to effect such awareness, notification would only be fulfilled if in fact the Minister receives the missive and reads it. If the Minister is available to review such a document, one wonders why the Minister is not in the position of making the actual decision, considering the availability of instantaneous electronic communication.

In any event, there are further restrictions on the public officer’s ability and authority to act outside of the Criminal Code. Under subsection (9), further restrictions pertain to instances where the public officer is involved in activity that would be likely to result in loss of or serious damage to property or where a person is acting under the direction of the public officer in accordance with subsection (10). In these specific circumstances, the public officer must not only comply with the circumstances of justification under subsection (8) but must also comply with the further justifications listed under subsection (9). Thus, the public officer must also be personally authorized in writing to act or if such written authorization is not feasible, the officer must believe on reasonable grounds that the acts are necessary to “preserve the life or safety of any person, prevent the compromise of the identity of a public officer acting in an undercover capacity, of a confidential informant or of a person acting covertly under the direction and control of a public officer, or prevent the imminent loss or destruction of evidence of an indictable offence.” This broad authority and justification to commit criminal offences is tempered by the limitation to the section under subsection (11) that there is no justification for “the intentional or criminally negligent causing of death or bodily harm to another person; the wilful attempt in any manner to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice; or conduct that would violate the sexual integrity of an individual.” Section 25.1 also reiterates that all other protections to a police officer in the Code are available and that despite the extraordinary powers under the section, officers must still comply with the rules of evidence.

When a public officer does in fact commit an offence or direct others to do so in accordance with s.25.1, there are further oversight requirements such as under s.25.2, the public officer must file a written report with the senior official as soon as feasible after the commission of the said acts. An annual report is compiled by the competent authority or Minister and made public regarding the previous yearly activities outlining the number of emergency designations made by senior officials’ and the number of written authorizations made by the senior officials under 25.1(9)(a), the number of offences committed by officers as a result, the nature of the conduct being investigated and the nature of the acts committed by the designated officers. However, such report must still preserve the confidentiality, must not compromise ongoing investigations, must not prejudice an ongoing legal proceeding and must generally be not contrary to the public interest. Such annual reports are available online.

For instance, the RCMP publishes such reports through the Public Safety website. Although the 2012 Report is available online, the 2013 Report has not as yet been published most likely as the report must be first tabled in the House of Commons and the Senate for approval. However, provincial reports are available such as the 2013 report from British Columbia. Alberta does not publish a stand-alone report but publishes the information as part of a larger report on the state of the Ministry as a whole. This means the information is not clearly accessible but is found under the heading in the report entitled “Annual Report Extracts and Other Statutory Reports.” The actual 2013 “report” consists of three lines indicating three instances of illegal conduct committed while investigating “homicide and missing persons” and resulted in “minor damage to a vehicle.”

In the previous 2012 Report there were five instances of illegal conduct wherein the officers created the “illusion” of a break in, committed property damage and participated in activities of a criminal organization. This description creates more questions than answers as it is not a crime to create an “illusion” of a crime and it is only those acts contrary to the Criminal Code, which must be reported. If in fact a crime was committed by this “illusion,” for example, if the conduct amounted to a public mischief, then the report should specify the exact crime as opposed to the circumstances in which it was done. Of course, the sections do not provide immunity for certain criminal acts, no matter in what circumstances they are committed, such as an obstruct justice. Therefore, the information needed to provide the appropriate oversight for this activity must be detailed in a transparent and accountable fashion. Similarly, the fact that the officers participated in activities of a criminal organization is unclear considering some of those activities could no doubt be specifically identified as commission of crimes. Compare this to the BC Report, which although brief, contains much more information, such as the number of times the emergency designations were used. Certainly, none of these reports have any information on how the oversight requirements of the provisions, as in the review by the “public authority” or civilian oversight committee, are fulfilled. Considering the Hart and Mack decisions and the Courts concern with the use of investigative techniques, which mimic criminal organizations, such reporting should be reconsidered by government authorities. Additionally, in light of the importance of this oversight function and the fact there is no prior judicial authorization required, the published information should be standardized by the Federal Government and subject to civilian oversight scrutiny.

As with electronic interceptions of private communications, under s. 25.4, within a year after committing the justified offence, the senior officer, who receives the public officer’s written report, must notify “in writing any person whose property was lost or seriously damaged as a result of the act or omission” unless such notification would compromise or hinder an investigation, compromise the identity of an officer or informant, endanger the life or safety of another, prejudice a legal proceeding or be contrary to the public interest. Of possible concern is the exception to notify for reasons of prejudicing a legal proceeding as such prejudice may be in the eye of the beholder. In other words, such non-disclosure may prejudice the accused’s trial, even though disclosure would prejudice the prosecutor’s case. It seems more appropriate, in matters that are before the court, for a judicial authority to balance the prejudicial effects in order to determine whether or not notice should be given. This would be more consistent with Charter rights of disclosure of the Crown’s case to the defence.

Finally, it should be noted that there are provisions, which require a legislative review of these sections within three years of the sections coming into force. The first report of such review was presented in 2006.  One of the concerns raised in the report was the lack of prior judicial authorization for some of the activity. There are other concerns raised but the Committee “lacked sufficient evidence to come to any firm conclusions” and the sections remained unchanged. Indeed the report was entitled “interim” report, although I was unable to locate a “final” one.

It is important to note the paucity of information on the civilian oversight aspect of these sections. There is no reporting of or information pertaining to the composition of the “public authority” contemplated by these sections and the findings of this oversight committee. There was an interesting paper presented at CACOLE conference, which is the Canadian Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, in 2002 after these sections were proclaimed in force. The paper presents an excellent overview of the proposed regime and the rationale as well as discussion of similar regimes in other countries such as England and Australia. The impact on civilian oversight was minimal, meaning that there were few or no complaints arising out of the sections. However, the paper does propose some recommendations to the oversight bodies to help reinforce the import of the sections by establishing a code of conduct or policies relating to good faith of police officers and the conduct required by police officers who are authorized to use such extraordinary powers. Certainly, this kind of oversight is being done by individual boards and commissions but is not nationally mandated. Thus, another recommendation is for the Federal Government to integrate the oversight of these activities into the relevant civilian oversight of the participating law enforcement agencies. Certainly this would strengthen public confidence in the system and provide transparency in a rather obscure area of law enforcement. Of note, is the Australian regime, which uses legislation similar to our criminal code provisions, but has added protections involving stringent code of conduct for officers and the use of prior judicial authorization. Certainly the Australian experience involves a far more robust public auditing and monitoring system than here in Canada.  Of particular note is the Australian Annual Report on such activities, known as “controlled investigations,” which is far more detailed than the reporting seen in Canada.

It may very well be that these changes will not happen until and unless the Courts become involved. To date there have been some Charter applications to declare the sections unconstitutional. These applications have been dismissed at the trial level and such arguments have not been made at the appellate court level. The Honourable Mr. Justice Curtis of the British Columbia Supreme Court considered Charter arguments relating to these sections in the Lising case. In that decision, Justice Curtis found the sections were not contrary to s. 7 of the Charter as the sections were not constitutionally overbroad or vague. On the further s. 7 issue of whether or not the lack of prior judicial authorization renders the sections unconstitutional, Justice Curtis ruled that in the extraordinary circumstances of section 25.1, prior judicial authorization is not warranted and in fact impede the intention of the sections. As Justice Curtis stated “The ultimate goal of Parliament in enacting s. 25.1 is the protection of everyone’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person”. This line of reasoning may presage similar arguments, which may be made on the anticipated federal government anti-terrorism efforts that will give CSIS enhanced powers of investigation.

It will be useful to monitor the status of these provisions considering the enhanced national security concerns and the impact of the Hart and Mack cases on the “reverse sting” or “Mr. Big” operations. Yet again it will be the courts who will need to balance the rights of the individual to be free of state interference with the collective right to live in a secure and safe society.