Are You Listening to This? The Constitutionality of Interceptions of Private Communications In Exceptional Circumstances
Justice Moldaver and Justice Karakatsanis, writing for an unanimous court in the Tse case and their first decision as Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, found s.184.4 of the Criminal Code, which governs investigatory interceptions of private communications in “exceptional” circumstances, lacking in the constitutionally required safeguards required for such interceptions. According to the Code, “exceptional” circumstances refers to the situation where a peace officer is facing an “urgent” situation whereby he or she is reasonably unable to follow the normal procedures outlined in the Code for such interceptions.
What would these normal procedures require? First, we must step back from the section and pause to consider the context. Section 184.4 is in Part VI (6) of the Criminal Code relating to “invasion of privacy,” or when a peace officer wants to investigate a criminal matter by using an investigative technique involving the surreptitious interception of private communications. In other, more colloquial terms, the police want to “spy” or “eavesdrop” on a targeted individual, whom the police believe on reasonable grounds to be committing or planning to commit a crime. As we know from television and movies, spying is a very high tech activity requiring the most cutting edge devices such as wiretaps accessed by loads of smart looking mechanical equipment found in plain white cube vans with cool looking techies wearing enormous noise-cancelling headphones. Also present is the ubiquitous computer laptop, as today’s savvy cop needs to use the best in order to combat the even technologically savvier criminal.
As great as these techniques look on the big screen, they do not translate well in the constitutional setting; a context, which takes individual rights seriously, and violations of such rights even more seriously. In our Charter, through sections 7 and 8, the state is required to respect the dignity, autonomy, and integrity of the individual as a defining element of individual freedom. However, with this state obligation, as Pierre Trudeau so eloquently stated “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” comes the competing need to protect society from harm through state-sponsored police investigation and protection. It is the judiciary’s role to determine the appropriate balance between these competing rights through a generous and flexible interpretation of the Charter.
As a result, the starting point in the Criminal Code for invasion of privacy is to create an offence where private communication is intercepted by any means. Private communications are any oral, telephone, or radio-based communication made in the context of a reasonable expectation of privacy. Thus, the originator of the communication intended the communication to be made to another person, with an expectation no one else other than the intended receiver would hear it. Any non-consensual interceptions to such private communication are therefore unlawful and contrary to section 184 of the Criminal Code.
There are two exceptions to the rule, wherein the interception is unlawful. One scenario involves the consent to intercept by either the originator or the receiver of the communication. The other scenario, which is of interest in the Tse case, contemplates a lawful interception where the investigators obtained prior judicial authorization to intercept the communications in accordance with the procedure as set out in the Criminal Code. The application to a Judge for such an authorization is described in section 185 of the Criminal Code.
The application procedure is rigorous: it must be made in writing, it must be made before a superior court judge or a designated judge, it must be signed by the provincial Attorney General or the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness or a duly authorized agent specially designated in writing, and must be accompanied by a sworn document (affidavit) of the investigating officer.
In turn, this affidavit, based on the information and belief of the investigator, must include the following information: the facts justifying the authorization should be given; the particulars of the alleged crime; the type of communication to be intercepted; the names, addresses, and occupations, if known, of all the persons intended to be intercepted together with the reasonable grounds to believe such interception may assist the investigation; a description of the place, if known, where the communication is to be intercepted; general description of how the communication will be intercepted; the number of times, if any, such an application for interception has previously been made under the section and the specific details of that prior application; the length of time for which the interception is required; and why other investigative techniques would not likely succeed or why it would be impractical to use other techniques due to the urgency of the situation or if other techniques were tried and failed, what those other investigative techniques were and why they failed to work.
Even if the above procedure is followed to the letter and even if the peace officer has fulfilled all of these pre-requisites, the application Judge, under section 186, must not issue an authorization unless her or she is satisfied that it is in the best interests of the administration of justice to issue the authorization to intercept and that other investigative techniques have been tried and failed, or are unlikely to succeed, or urgency requires this technique.
The steps needed and the information required before an authorization is issued emphasizes the status quo of non-interception and provides a constitutionally permissible exception to the general rule.
Now that we have stepped back from the section at issue in the Tse decision to look at the broader context, we can appreciate the constitutional deficiencies found in s.184.4. First, as earlier discussed, s. 184.4 is an exception to the exception found in s. 185. Section 184.4 permits a peace officer to intercept a private communication in prescribed exigent circumstances where: the peace officer believes on reasonable grounds that an authorization cannot reasonably be obtained and the peace officer believes on reasonable grounds the interception is “immediately necessary” to prevent an “unlawful act” that would cause “serious harm” to person or property and where either the originator of the communication or the receiver of the communication will cause the harm or is the intended victim of the harm. That’s it. There is no requirement for prior judicial authorization. It is the investigator, not an unbiased judicial officer, who makes the determination of the urgency of the situation.
All the safeguards found in sections 185 and 186 seem to disappear as “urgency” trumps “privacy” in s. 184.4. Not so according to Justices Moldaver and Karakatsanis. In their view, certain aspects of the section pass “constitutional muster” as it provides an appropriately flexible authorization approach in dire or emergency circumstances. However, this appropriate response can only be found by stepping back once again from the section and looking to s.188. This section contemplates a “stop-gap” authorization, which is issued in urgent situations where an interception is required before there is an opportunity to apply for an authorization under s.185. This “follow-up” authorization must be sought for the s.184.4 situation as soon as is practicable to minimize the time in which a non-authorized interception is at play, thereby maintaining the rigours of the interception exception.
But wait, did the SCC not find s.184.4 invalid and contrary to the Charter? Yes, but in a very limited way, which protects the integrity of the section and signals to the legal community that crime fighting is back on the Agenda with the Charter’s full approval. The constitutional concern with the section is not the lack of judicial approval for an interception, as that judicial-less state would last only for a short time, but it is the lack of notice, which comes after the interception is used, to the intended targets that causes constitutional concern. No notice to those involved means a lack of oversight of the use of police powers. No notice means a lack of disclosure, which in turn means no ability to take the matter before a Judge to determine the appropriateness of the extreme police actions. It is this failure, which the Harper Government has twelve months to rectify. This is an easy fix with the SCC giving explicit instructions on how to comply.
This telling decision, written by new appointments, gives us some insight into the future. The Charter has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary without much fanfare. This similarly low-key decision reiterates the now familiar Charter values of privacy and oversight but at the same time reinforces the State’s interest to combat crime. The Tse decision appears to provide an interpretation that presumes constitutionality instead of requiring proof of it. It seems to prefer self-referential statutory interpretation as opposed to the trail-blazing early Charter years when Chief Justice Dickson and Madame Justice Wilson wrote sometimes blistering commentaries on the role of the State in protecting Charter rights. Whether or not this is a trend will be seen in the next SCC Charter decision.