A LOOK DOWN THE ROAD TAKEN BY THE SUPREME COURT OF CANADA IN R V MILLS

Perhaps we, in the legal world, should not have been surprised by R v Mills2019 SCC 22, the most recent decision on privacy and the application of that concept in the section 8 Charter regime. When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, we tend to dispense with the facts in favour of the principles, but Mills reminds us, facts do still matter in our highest court. Factually, pragmatically, and contextually, we understand that the investigative technique used in Mills simply needs to work. But in the name of principle, precedence, and visionary reach, Mills leaves us wondering. To throw even more dust into the eyes, overlaid on the decision is confusion. The seven-panel decision is fractured, leaving us to count on our fingers who agrees with who to manage some sort of majority decision. In the end, the numeric tally does not really matter. This is a new kind of Supreme Court where everyone agrees in the outcome but how they get there leads us onto the road “less travelled” or to update the metaphor, leads us through the web of internet connections less surfed. Or does it? Millsmay be surprising but not unpredictable. It may also be just another decision exploring the reach of privacy in our everyday world and therefore part of the narrative, not the last word.

I have already suggested the facts matter and they do. Mills was charged with offences, colloquially described as internet child luring offences. Through the medium of social network, luring does become decidedly lurid as sexually explicit messages and pictures are sent to entice children. In Mills, the contact with fourteen-year old “Leann” led to the “in person” meeting, which ended in the arrest. All seemingly run of the mill, so to speak. But what “made all the difference” in this case is the reality of “Leann” as a false identity for a police officer. In many ways, this investigative technique is no different than many other undercover operations such as police posing as sex workers or drug dealers. But what makes this technique unique is the manner in which the investigation was done. By filtering the technique through internet wires, the relationship possibly becomes a “private communication” attracting s. 8 Charter interest. At the core of this argument lies the “ghost in the wires” and whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of internet communications. 

I say “this type” of “communication” because of the decision in R v Marakah,2017 SCC 59. There, the majority viewed text messaging between potential drug dealers as a private communication. Stripped of the bad personhood attached to that messaging, the majority called out the relationship engendered by such communication as attracting a reasonable expectation of privacy. Like the “reasonable hypothetical offender” (See e.g. R v Morrisey2000 SCC 39 at para 2)  or, to use the new age term, “reasonably foreseeable applications” (See R v Morrison2019 SCC 15 at para 170) used in s. 12 analysis, the messages become a statement of content neutrality (See Mills at paras 25, 110, 117­–122). There is no value judgment placed on Marakah’s bad choice of friends or even worse, his bad judgment to deal drugs. Instead, the focus is on fostering relationships, as in the law of privilege, and what it takes to protect and maintain private relationships in the context of law enforcement. In this way, the concept of communication as relationship-building is further explored in s. 8 through the relationships we see ourselves having with the state. 

Interestingly, the dissent in Marakah held onto the hard focus of hardware by emphasizing the container in which the communications were residing (at para 151). This view is an easy extension from previous s. 8 case law including the majority in R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, viewing the search and seizure or rather, as in the case of digital devices, the seizure and search of the device as the key to the analysis. However, this perspective failed to recognize the pervasiveness of the privacy issue throughout all aspects of s. 8. From standing to s. 24(2) exclusion, reasonable expectation of privacy creates the Charter space for the s. 8 discussion. Unsurprisingly, Mills does not step back into the container as the analytical driver of the decision. Instead, it is the meaning of relationships, which creates the patchwork of decisions in Mills

Yet Mills does not just define relationships worthy of s. 8 protection. Nor does the decision define relationships in a vacuum. Rather it defines relationships in the context of the normative standard embedded into the reasonable expectation of privacy analysis. In R v Reeves2018 SCC 56, Justice Karakatsanis, at paragraph 41, touted the “normative, not descriptive” standard as the overarching theme of s. 8 to acknowledge what we in the cyberworld already knew – that electronic conversations are human not machine directed. Instead of this free-floating concept of human relations, the majority in Mills takes this chimerical-like quality of normativeness and pins it squarely onto the Criminal Code. Just as the criminal law reflects our fundamental values by underlining those acts worthy of moral approbation through just sanctioning, so too does the normative quality of s. 8 reflect the morally based vision of a safe law-abiding society.

In Mills, the Supreme Court is not navel gazing or conducting blue sky visioning. In Mills, the majority looks directly at the conduct in question, no neutrality here, and sees the so-called relationship between a child “stranger” and a criminally-minded adult as unworthy of protection. Section 8 is not a shield; it is not the “happy place” where we are free from state intervention, and it is certainly not the private place where we can propagate illegal conduct to our hearts’ content. Yet, this normative view does not take away from the shades of privacy previously recognized by the Supreme Court. As in R v Jarvis2019 SCC 10, privacy has a universal meaning. In this way, a relationship stylized by the manner of communication or defined by a space where privacy ebbs and flows, what will be protected through s. 8 is deeply contextualized. This is vertical contextualization, in which the Court drills down deeply through the stakeholders’ strata. The “totality of the circumstances” is viewed not just through the accused’s lens, not just through the perspective of the victims, but also through the community’s sense of justice. As in other Supreme Court decisions, where the public interest shares space with individual rights (See e.g. R v Jordan2016 SCC 27 at para 25) normativeness involves collectiveness.

Nevertheless, rejecting the Mills scenario as Charter worthy still keeps the s. 8 conversation alive. True, in essentials, Mills is about what is not a privacy right under s. 8. Yet, the decision also provides the contours for what is or possibly still could be engaged by s.8. For instance, the intersection of electronic communications and Part VIinterceptions of that communication is still very much in issue. From the pseudo-majority of Justice Brown to the pseudo-majority of Justice Karakatsanis (I say “pseudo” as Justice Moldaver concurs with both decisions making both majority judgment worthy) including the minority view of Justice Martin, the presence of surveillance becomes the indicator of interception. For the majority, surveillance is decidedly old-school involving state authorities who are outside of but looking into the private lives of citizens, whilst Justice Martin flattens out surveillance as the state, no matter where placed, looking at citizens, no matter where located. Certainly, Justice Martin’s description is more attune with the Internet of Things and the connectivity we all now experience in which no-one knows who is watching whom. To distill the differing viewpoints on the issue, this is “watching” versus “intruding.” Of course, since Hunter v Southam[1984] 2 SCR 145 and the s. 8 textual conventions since that decision speak of state intrusion. Watching, on the other hand, is much more insidious, much more powerful, and of much more concern to the community sense of justice.

Another issue unresolved by Mills is the Charter applicability in the transitional grey area between state intrusion to state participation. If s. 8 of the Charter is not concerned with investigatory techniques in which the state initiates a conduit for enforcement, then when does s. 8 become relevant? This is where previous case decisions provide no clear answer. To see this obfuscation, we need to look the intersection of two scenarios. One scenario focuses on third party consent while the other engages the Mills situation emphasizes when state intrusion is used, without prior judicial authorization, for the purpose of implementing an investigative technique. 

Third party consent is not novel. Like reasonable expectation of privacy, third party consent can impact all stages of the s. 8 analysis. It impacts standing issues through the measurement of control. It impacts whether state authorities have lawful authority to seize and access an electronic device belonging to the accused or a third party. Just as privacy is not an “all or nothing” concept (R v Jarvis, 2019 SCC 10 at para 61), neither is third party consent (See R v Cole2012 SCC 53). People share ideas, homes and hearts. People can too share control and authority over an object or a conversation. Millsdistinguishes the state as initiator of the private communication from the state as intervenor into a private communication despite consent from a third party. There is still Charter room in the shared conversational space where a third party is involved be it the concerned family member who hands over a device or the individual participating in the communication.

Mills permits the state actor to be whomsoever they need to be for investigative purposes but also as the initiator of the ruse. The decision leaves open the scenario where the concerned or involved third party hands over a device and the state authorities continue the conversation under the cover of the true participant of the communication. Here, there is still an intervention or a looking into a communication albeit through the eyes of the known recipient. There is a relationship, however the majority or minority defines it. Even if the original participant consents, Millsdoes not pronounce on the efficacy of that unauthorized intervention. This means, in Supreme Court terms, that we can expect more decisions on the issue.

 You may have noticed that I referenced in my opening paragraph a much-loved poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.”  The poem is famous for symbolizing life’s choices and where they may or may not take us. In fact, that is not what the poem is about despite our ubiquitous reference to it as a life changing or even life affirming metaphor. When read carefully, the poem suggests we misread our life decisions. “Ages and ages hence” we will tell a tale of how we stood on the brink and choose a more challenging life journey. Yet, in actual fact, there was no such life altering choice to be made at the time as the roads “equally lay” “just as fair.” Perhaps the same can be said of the Mills decision. The decision does not take us down a road that makes “all the difference” but through the same interconnectivity of privacy ideas we already have before us. ‘Same but different’ may be an apt description of this decision and other recent Supreme Court rulings. Indeed, the fractured decision best mirrors who we are as a society, which is far from cohesive or uniform. 

We are presently very much at the crossroads of privacy and in the criss-crossing wires of the Internet of Things. There is an element of uncertainty as we stand at that intersection. But uncertainty may not be such a bad or scary prospect. Looked at with eyes wide open we can assess the potentialities of s. 8 and see perhaps through the differing perspectives of Mills a way forward taking with us a vision of who we want to be.

 

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.

 

 

The Fearon Case: A Question Of Common Law Police Powers

Everyone has at least one of these: a cell phone, a smart phone, a tablet, or a mini-computer. What they have in common is their portability. We carry these devices around as we carry our wallets and purses. They are our most prized and most used possessions. Add WiFi or 4G to these and we have instant access to information: no longer are we armchair travelers on the Internet but we are travelers on the Internet. Indeed, with WiFi service being offered on long-haul flights in the USA, we are travelers traveling on the Internet. However, although these technological wonders have opened unexplored vistas for us, it has also opened an unbidden Pandora’s Box of legal issues, particularly in the area of criminal law.

In a prior posting, Can Criminal Law Keep Up With The Digital World?, I discussed the mounting technological impasse between investigation of crime and privacy rights. As the government rushes toward the new technological era, it seems those using this technology as an aid to their criminal activities, seem to be further ahead. The Courts, too, have been slow to offer guidance on these issues, resulting in uncertain and obfuscated laws. With the new judgment from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, R v Fearon, the law appears to be as clear as mud.

Let’s start with the media’s representation of this case, which by the way, involves a police search of an arrested person’s cell phone revealing information and photographs pertinent to the alleged crime. This is best described through the headlines used such as: OK for police to search cell phone if no password, says court or Ontario judge rules police can search non pass code-protected cell phones or better yet, Cell phones: No password, no protection: Why the Ontario court is right, and bad guys should get passwords. This emphasis on password protection seems overly simplistic. Even the articles suggesting the case is all about privacy rights seem to miss the mark. However, the articles on warrantless searches do come closer but not quite close enough in my view.

What Fearon raises does involve password protection, privacy rights, and warrantless searches but the issue is the extension of the common law right of the police to search incident to arrest. The Fearon case is all about the common law, how the common law can apply to present law conditions, and how the present law can be extended by the past. Incidentally, much of our present law is, in fact, merely a modification of previous law through the use of precedent and analogy. For a further discussion of the use of precedent and metaphors in law, read my previous posting Blog As Graffiti? Using Analogy and Metaphor In Case Law.

Police authority and the power to act can be found in legislation, by agreement, and in common law. The primary source of investigative power is found in the Criminal Code but the supreme law of Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms through sections 7 to 13, has circumscribed and greatly impacted those powers. Police can also act upon agreement or consent of an individual. Although this power must be clearly and unequivocally given, the “ask and you will receive” police power permits consensual searches without a warrant.

Finally, the police have common law powers to effect an investigation. Common law, is unwritten law created through custom and practice and comes to us through the English common law tradition. Much of the common law has in fact been translated into written rules and has therefore become statutory but much has not. Case in point is the police powers found in the common law.

Historically, the police power to search incident to arrest is a common law power. Also a common law power is the police authority to enter a private dwelling place when in “hot pursuit” of a suspect. Common law, although historical, is subject to change. Custom and practice change and thus the common law must evolve with these changes in order to be relevant and responsive to societal needs. Thus, the police common law power to search incident to arrest has evolved into the police power to not only search an accused incident to arrest but to search the offender’s vehicle as well. This search incident to arrest must be connected to the arrest and there must be an articulable reason for it such as a reasonable prospect that the officer will find evidence of the commission of the crime or for police officer safety.

Another common law power to search and seize is known as the “plain view” doctrine. This common law principle permits a warrantless search and seizure where police are lawfully at a location and the contraband is in plain view to the police. In this instance the police do not need reasonable and probable grounds to believe that the item would be present but the police cannot be previously aware of the evidence and must come across it “innocently” or inadvertently. This power does not permit a full search of the location. 

This brings us back to the Fearon case and his cell phone. The argument advanced on appeal did raise the issue of the police common law powers but only on the issue of the police power to search incident to arrest. Plain view was not considered as although the phone itself was found in plain view, it was not contraband. Although the information found on the phone was evidence of a criminal offence, it was not found inadvertently but was found as a result of a purposeful search of the contents of the phone. One wonders if the plain view doctrine might have been engaged if the home screen of the phone showed an incriminating picture or text. That, however, was not the case in Fearon.

The question posited on the issue of search incident to arrest was whether or not the search went beyond what is considered a search incident to arrest. The Fearon court referred to two previous Ontario cases: the 2009 Polius case from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, which found only a “cursory” search was permissible where the search was incident to arrest and the Court of Appeal for Ontario Manley case from 2011, which permitted a search of a cell phone, incident to arrest.

In Manley, the cell phone search revealed a photograph of the gun used in the robberies for which the offender had been just arrested. The “cursory” search of the phone was considered valid as the officer had done so in order to establish ownership of the cell phone as the accused was known to have stolen cell phones in the past. The search was for no other purpose and the photograph was found before the officer established ownership of the phone. Finding the incriminating photograph, in other words, was like finding contraband in plain view. A warrant was later requested to do a complete search of the phone. It should be noted that the robberies were completely unrelated to stolen cell phones and therefore the suggestion that the search was connected to the crime is questionable. In any event, the Court in Fearon preferred to follow the Manley case, believing it similar in facts and actions to Fearon.

Leaving aside the efficacy of the Manley decision, the bottom-line of Fearon concludes that a search of a cell phone, as incident to arrest, where the officer is seeking evidence connected to the arrest, is lawful. The difficulty with Fearon comes with the “throw away” line in the Court’s conclusion as follows

This case is not significantly different from Manley.  I cannot conclude, in the circumstances of this case, that the original examination of the contents of the cell phone fell outside the ambit of the common law doctrine of search incident to arrest.  Apparently, the cell phone was turned “on” and it was not password protected or otherwise “locked” to users other than the appellant.  The police officers had a reasonable belief that they might find photographs and text messages relevant to the robbery.  The initial search at the time of the arrest involved a cursory look through the contents of the cell phone to ascertain if it contained such evidence. (underlined for emphasis)

This comment on the cell phone being turned “on” and not locked or password protected to other users seems to have been commented on by the Court without explanation. If the search of the cell phone is permissible under the common law authority of a search incident to arrest as defined in the Supreme Court of Canada case of Caslake, then the fact the cell phone is in the off or on position makes no difference. The emphasis should be on the legitimate connection between the arrest and the incidental search. In Fearon, the search was wholly connected to the investigation of the crime committed by the accused. As explained by Chief Justice Lamer, as he then was, in Caslake,

The authority for the search does not arise as a result of a reduced expectation of privacy of the arrested individual.  Rather, it arises out of a need for the law enforcement authorities to gain control of things or information which outweighs the individual’s interest in privacy.

How then would the fact a cell phone may be locked impact this legitimate interest? It should not, unless the Court found that a cell phone itself has such a high privacy interest to outweigh law enforcement interests. This argument would bring us back to the SCC Cole case and whether, like a personal computer, the information contained on a cell phone touches a person’s biographical core. For a further discussion of this, see my previous blog on the case. However, Fearon did not refer to the Cole case or the issues raised by it.

Interestingly, the Court of Appeal for Ontario in an earlier case from 2011, R v Jones, which incidentally had Justice MacPherson, who was a member of the Court in Fearon, as a panel member, decided on the issue of a plain view seizure of information relating to child pornography during a legal search of a computer for a fraud offence, acknowledged that

Whether the plain view doctrine should apply in circumstances involving a computer search has been a matter of much debate.  The debate has centred on the intrusive nature of computer searches and the somewhat awkward fit between traditional search and seizure concepts and computer technology.

This “awkward fit” appears to be continuing as seen by the Manley and Fearon cases and will continue until we have some clarity from our Supreme Court.

 

 

 

 

 

Can Criminal Law Keep Up With The Digital World?

A mere ten years ago, we did not “google” or “friend” or “wiki.” Twenty years ago, we did not listen to music on an iPod or talk on a Blackberry. Back then we bought Kodak film and waited to view our photos. The next decade should prove to be even more progressive as we start to use “bio interfaces” to directly connect to the Internet, thereby cutting out the “middle-man” or, to be more accurate, the “middle-machine.” With the direct ability to connect with technology, we will also see more data interfaces with which to interpret data, such as Wolfram Alpha. The advances and changes in technology have indeed been incredible.

With these new technologies, there will be challenges. Not in terms of how well we will adapt to the new advances: history has shown humans to be great adapters to new environments. Our challenge will be how well our institutions will be able to adapt and respond to the rapid changes. It is this challenge of how the criminal law responds to the new digital age, which was the subject of the panel presentation at the recent Alberta Law Conference.

To discuss this pressing issue, the panel consisted of two prosecutors with an expertise in presenting digital evidence in criminal cases: Daniel Scanlan, a B.C. Crown Attorney and author of Digital Evidence In Criminal Law and Marc Cigana, presently prosecuting the Quebec Hell’s Angels case. The discussion was first framed in the privacy context through the realities of society’s paradigm shift away from a full and robust privacy protection network, where personal information is jealously guarded and access to it is restricted, to a society of informed by social media, where intimate details are publically revealed and dynamically transferred world wide in seconds.

It is this new paradigm, which has kept the courts, the lawmakers, and the advocates behind the “eight-ball” and has created a legal disconnect. Decisions are rendered on technology, which by the time of the decision is no longer in use, thereby making the decision useless. Similarly, any legislative response is outdated by the time of the enactment date. The result is a patchwork of case law, too specific to be of much use as a precedent and lacking the informational basis to become legal principle.

The solution was a call by the panel for a more principled approach to technology. Instead of approaching digital evidence on a case-by-case basis, the participants in the criminal justice system must look beyond the facts and provide the evidentiary basis needed for a meta-decision on the use of digital technology. Such a decision or principle would produce a more measured response by our criminal justice system to new technological advances, thus promoting just results congruent with our digital age.

As it stands, the Courts struggle to conceptualize the new technology’s place in the legal literature. A neat example is the determination of the validity of a warrantless search of a cell phone based on the presence or absence of a reasonable expectation of privacy. Instead of viewing cell phones, as cell phones, and thus as a new entity requiring a unique reasonable expectation of privacy determination, the Courts struggle to pigeonhole cell phones into known categories. Thus the Court asks: Is a cell phone like a notebook? Or is a cell phone like a purse? Or is a cell phone like a computer? Unsurprisingly, the answer differs from case-case and from province to Province, leaving the case law in flux.

What is the Supreme Court of Canada’s position in this conundrum? So far, they have not made any cohesive determination on the issue but there is hope they will enter the fray with the Telus case, which recently received leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada pursuant to s.40 as an issue of national importance, without being heard at the Court of Appeal level. In Telus, the police used a general warrant under s.487 of the Criminal Code to seize Telus records of text messages from the accused’s cell phone. The difficulty was the warrant gave authority not only for the seizure of historical messages, already sent, but also for the seizure of messages as they were being generated. Telus took the position such a seizure was akin to an interception of electronic communication under Part VI of the Criminal Code, which required a wiretap authorization.

Unfortunately, the framing of the case appears to be inviting the pigeonhole approach: Are the text messages merely letters in transit or are they more like a private conversation over the telephone? Instead of focusing on the characterization, the Court should be focusing on crafting a judgment, which will set down the general legal principles to be followed when faced with digital technology in the criminal law.

How they will in fact approach the issue will determine whether the digital future can easily live within our traditional precepts or whether our criminal justice system is just too outdated to face the challenges of tomorrow.