ENTER OR NOT HERE I COME? THE TENTATIVE (AND NOT SO TENTATIVE) VIEWS IN THE REEVES DECISION

Finally, a SCC decision where the concurring judgments discuss at length what they say they won’t discuss at length. It’s refreshing to read a decision that is so SCOTUS in approach – an Opinion – and two concurring Opinions at that. In R v Reeves2018 SCC 56, the newest decision from the Supreme Court building on the vast case law in the area of s. 8 of the Charter, the two concurring decisions by Justice Moldaver and Justice Côté take up an issue “benched” by the Justice Karakatsanis’s majority decision. In deciding Steeves has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a shared computer, the majority deems it unnecessary to decide the ancillary issue of whether the police entry into the home shared by the Reeves and his partner was legally justified in the first place.

This situation particularly resonates for me as a professor teaching 1Ls fundamental criminal law concepts. The cases I teach are rife with “we will get to that another day” sentiment. In JA[2011] 2 SCR 440, for example, both the majority of the then Chief Justice McLachlin and the dissent of Justice Fish leave open the Jobidon issue of consensual sexual activity that involves bodily harm. Again, in Mabior[2012] 2 SCR 584, Chief Justice McLachlin, after referencing sexually transmitted diseases other than HIV throughout the judgment, disappointedly states that “Where the line should be drawn with respect to diseases other than HIV is not before us” (at para 92).  

The majority in Reevestries to employ a similar yet different tactic to deflect a decision on the issue. Instead of the tantalizing suggestion that there will be some case on the horizon which will engage the issue squarely on, Justice Karakatsanis suggests the issue may be present but assessing it is unnecessary because there was a s. 8 violation in taking the computer and, in any event, Reeves’s counsel conceded the entry was lawful (paras 20 to 21). Furthermore, and here is the brush off, the issue raises “competing considerations” and to proceed without “full submissions” would be imprudent (at para 23). As an aside, Justices Côté and Brown, in their dissent in Trinity Western University,2018 SCC 32, took this same tack on the sticky issue of the standard of review as they declined to comment on the Doré/Loyola framework“in the absence of full submissions” (at para 266).

Despite this firm “no,” Justice Karakatsanis continues to explore the complexities inherent in such a decision (paras 24 and 25). That it invokes the intersection of the public and private spheres of our lives. That it highlights the nuances apparent in how we live those lives, raising questions of where and when our privacy becomes shared and if privacy amounts to mere physical space. I have explored the multi-verse of privacy and space in a previous blog posted on my Ideablawg website entitled, “Taking a Quick Survey of the Legal Landscape Through the Intersection of the Public and Private Living Space.” Overlaid is the societal desire to maintain public safety through the investigation of crime.The issue is, as suggested by Justice Karakatsanis, “complex” and requires a “considered response.” 

Yet, the presence of “competing considerations” is exactly why the concurring justices decide to give a response, considered or otherwise. For Justice Moldaver, a tentative response is better than none. In his view, direction from the Court is needed, albeit not binding direction. Justice Moldaver often gives advice to lawyers and trial judges when the issue requires it. For instance, in R v Rodgerson,[2015] 2 SCR 760, Justice Moldaver, offers some street-smart advice on how to run a murder case before a jury. In Reeves, Justice Moldaver does something different – he anticipates the issue as an issue and, in a forthright, make no bones about it manner, he states his “purpose in writing this concurrence is to express some tentative views on the issue of police entry into a shared residence” (at para 71). But that’s not all, the reason for writing something that is not a ruling, that is not a decision, that is not really even true obiter dicta as it is “tentative,” meaning he has not really made up his mind, is to fill a gap that is “a matter of considerable importance to the administration of criminal justice — and one which Parliament has to date left unaddressed.” This statement alone packs a wallop as Justice Moldaver anticipates an immediacy that cannot wait until another day. The matter is so pressing that it cannot wait for full submissions and cannot wait until he has fully formulated his opinion. This is, in other words, a matter of critical importance. It must be said.

Interestingly, “tentative views” have been offered in the Supreme Court previously. In eight SCC decisions such “tentative views” have been expressed. In the oldest such decision, St. John and Quebec R Co v Bank of British North America and the Hibbard Co1921 CanLII 574, Justice Anglin is not expressing a tentative view as much as he is making it clear that the tentative view he had of the case was not dispelled through oral argument (p 654). The other seven SCC decisions do express tentative views on matters on the basis those issues were “not raised before us” as with Justice Cartwright dissenting in Smith v The Queen[1960] SCR 776) and Justice La Forest in Tolofson v. Jensen; Lucas (Litigation Guardian of) v Gagnon[1994] 3 SCR 1022.

An instance where “tentative views” matter, as they presage the binding ruling and have precedential impact, is in R v Bernard, [1988] 2 SCR 833. In that case, Justice Wilson’s concurring decision (at para 93 to 95), on the constitutionality of the Leary Rule limiting the effect of intoxication on mens rea, ultimately became the majority ruling of Justice Cory in R v Daviault, [1994] 3 SCR 63 (see also R v Penno,  [1990] 2 SCR 865 and R v Robinson[1996] 1 SCR 683). Not only did Justice Wilson’s opinion become law but it caused Parliament to hastily respond by adding s. 33.1 of the Code.

The “tentative views” presented in Reevesby Justice Moldaver are well-thought out and do not seem tentative at all. His analysis of the basis for the police officers’ entry into the shared home with the consent of Reeves partner is based in principle and on an application of years of case authority building upon police officer’s common law ancillary duties. In his 27-paragraph discussion on the issue, he deftly “tentatively described” (at para 96) the police common law duty to enter a residence to take a witness statement for purposes of an investigation. He sketches out five criteria to ensure the authority is carefully circumscribed through a practical and common-sense approach to the potential intrusive situation (at para 96). Despite his belief that his comments require fuller attention in the future, he continues the opinion with his further belief that his scenario for common law entry by the police, without reasonable grounds to believe an offence has been or that evidence will be found of an offence, is nevertheless constitutional (at para 97). He draws upon case authority which permits intrusive police action, in certain contained circumstances, based on reasonable suspicion. He concludes in paragraph 99, that as his criteria for entry is specifically constrained that it “may well meet s. 8’s reasonableness requirement.” Again, the discussion is not that it “will” meet or that it “does” meet but that it “may well” meet. The virtue testing is left for another day.

But the issue is not really left on the corner of the bench. In paragraphs 100 to 102, Justice Moldaver then applies his “tentative articulation of the lawful authority under which the police could enter a shared residence” to the facts of the case. He assumes his formulation is constitutional and finds it “quite possible” that up to the time of actual seizure of the computer, Reeves’s s. 8 rights remain intact. To add to this speculative brain-worthy exercise, Justice Moldaver decries the paucity of the record as it does not contain sufficient facts to properly determine the outcome of all of the five criteria formulated as part of the test.

In stark contrast is the decisive concurring decision of Justice Côté. There is nothing tentative about this presentation of the issue. She calls out the majority for declining to consider the issue considering “it was ably argued by the parties” and impacts the s. 24(2) analysis (para 105). Justice Côté takes the issue head on and makes quick work of years of carefully crafted s. 8 principles. She boldly finds that police can and should be entitled to enter a shared residence, without a warrant, based on the consent of one party alone. She does so in 13 paragraphs without the need to formulate or constrain police authority. She does so by focusing the s. 8 lens not on the accused but on the valid, subsisting and present consent of the co-habitant. In Edwards-like fashion she keeps the spotlight on the presence of the consent thereby dissolving the s.8 issue on the basis of an absence of a search or seizure. The entry is simply an everyday matter of invitation and is not the heightened arena of the state intruding into the privacy of a citizen’s life. With a flick of the switch, s. 8 disappears in favour of the down to earth realities of hearth and home. 

By deciding not to decide, the majority set the stage for a showdown but not the quick draw we are used to in reading a Supreme Court decision. Instead, we have in R v Reeves, a slow-motion decision that requires us to patiently await the right case to appear to give an authoritative voice to the tentative one. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait too long.