Keeping up with the Joneses in the Supreme Court of Canada: The Triumphal Return of the Presumption of Innocence

In addition to the criminal, evidence and advocacy courses I teach, I also teach 1Ls Legislation. Statutory interpretation looms large in that course. One of the analytical tools used in interpreting a statute, albeit in the context of the modern approach, is the concept of absurdity. If the plain reading of the statute would result in an absurdity, then the Courts will look for other interpretations consistent or harmonious with the context and scheme of the Act. Absurdity is a powerful interpretative tool and fits nicely in the legal trope: Law is reasoned and reasonable. It is also logical and helpful. Law is not absurd. This concept of absurdity transcends statutory interpretation and is an overarching principle of law generally. The proper response to Dickens’s Mrs. Bumble should therefore be: the law is not “a ass.” With the recent release of R v Jones, the Court clears up a true absurdity or as Justice Côté for the majority puts it, a “catch-22” situation, relating to whether Jones has standing to argue the Charter issue. Better yet, the Supreme Court clears up this concerning conundrum with the powerful and triumphal use of the presumption of innocence. This summarizes in a nutshell why the recent Supreme Court decision in Jones is a welcome addition to s. 8 case law.

The decision does not have the powerful punch found in the companion decision of Marakah, but it has “legs.” What is this “major major” issue? Put simply, according to previous case law (R v Edwards, 1996 SCC), in order to engage a justiciable Charter issue, the accused must establish a reasonable expectation of privacy (REP) in relation to the thing seized. It must be remembered that s. 8 protects people not places or things. The purpose of the right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure is to maintain an acceptable societal balance between an individual’s right to be free from state intrusion and the state’s need to intrude into an individual’s private life to maintain public safety and law enforcement. This “push-me pull-you” sense of balance is constantly being recalibrated by the courts in an effort to protect core democratic values underlying the Charter. This recalibration cannot be done in a vacuum but within the context of what currently matters to us as a society. In our courts, context is everything: from the meta-analysis of statutes as found in the modern approach to statutory interpretation to the specific flexibly-applied factors in the REP analysis. In order to argue REP, the accused must be literally or metaphorically standing in ground zero or in the circle of impact. If outside this Charter imbued impact zone, the accused cannot be aggrieved and cannot argue for exclusion of the evidence under s. 24(2).

Typically, it is not difficult to draw a circle of impact around the accused, particularly if the search or seizure are items personally connected to the accused. What does raise standing difficulties is where identity or ownership is in issue. Here’s the rub: once you admit you have standing, as in “you are the person sending the text messages about trafficking in firearms,” you cannot ethically suggest at trial “you are not the person sending the text messages about trafficking in firearms.” This Schrödinger’s cat-like conundrum requires counsel to make tactical decisions which may chip away at an accused’s right to make full answer and defence. The accused by taking the “not me” position is in essence giving up the right to argue a Charter violation. The Jones decision thankfully challenges that presumption and fixes it.

First, let’s start our analysis with the Edwards decision. In that decision, the majority, authored by Justice Cory, were less than impressed with the accused’s position on appeal, which was markedly different than at trial on the issue of ownership. The accused at trial testified that the drugs found in a third-party’s apartment were not his drugs. That position was maintained in the appellate court. It was only in the Supreme Court of Canada that the accused changed a “fundamentally important aspect of the evidence” in admitting that the drugs were indeed his property. This could not be countenanced as by changing the position the Appellant was relying on a different aspect of the REP, namely privacy in the drugs as opposed to REP in the apartment where the drugs were located.

In Jones, the situation was different. The accused did not lead any evidence he was the author and sender of the message. Instead, the defence relied on the Crown’s “theory” that the accused was the author and sender. The application judge found the accused could not rely on speculative “evidence” and therefore he had no standing to raise the s. 8 issue. But, as mentioned, how else could the defence advance a pressing Charter argument without compromising the defence? A legitimate goal of a trial is to put the Crown to the test of its case and to require the Crown prove all essential elements of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. One of those elements is identity of the owner of the illegal item. If identity is in issue, the defence cannot “have its cake and eat it too” by arguing in the alternative. Once an admission is made on an essential element such as identity of the owner, it is an admission of fact that cannot be admitted for limited purposes only. Law, ethics and the Charter prohibit such a paradoxical stance.

Justice Côté recognizes the unfairness inherent in the standing paradox and soundly rejects the absurdity of the outcome. At paragraph 19 she approves of the defence’s reliance on the Crown’s theory as a foundation for the Charter argument and leans on a purposive, normative approach to the paradox. This approach involves two strands invoking the low hurdle required to overcome the subjective component of the REP analysis and invoking the Charter itself.

First, some background on the REP factors, which are situated in and viewed through the factual circumstances of the case. The factors are a tailored-made, come-as-you-are assessment. Yet, it is an assessment that must be nestled in the social fabric. In a previous blog posting (also a podcast!) on s. 6 of the Criminal Code – the codification of the presumption of innocence – I alluded to the golden thread metaphor of that presumption. That concept of the golden thread, arising from Lord Sankey’s decision in the Woolmington case, maintains the presumption of innocence and the Crown’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by conceptually weaving the presumption of innocence into our social fabric. Similarly, Justice Côté’s solution to the standing paradox connects back in web-like fashion to the presumption of innocence. It does so through an acknowledgment of the generous interpretation of the REP factors as normative ones and through the protective nature of the Charter right against self-incrimination under s. 13.

The nexus point for these justifications to permit an accused to have section 8 standing even where they deny connection to the offence is that golden thread of innocence. It is nice to see its triumphal return as a recognition of the normative values we hold. It is also an essential reminder that at the heart of the REP analysis is the preservation of those societal values. In many ways, section 8 principles and the section 8 analysis of those principles serve as a perfect view into the justice system with the golden thread as the ultimate symbol of why the right of the state to intrude into our lives must be tempered by the right of an individual to be free from such intrusion.

 

Touching On The Biographical Core of Personal Information: The Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision in Cole

As soon as the Supreme Court of Canada issued the Cole case, I went to the website to read it. Initially, I was drawn to the case hoping to find further clarification and the “filling in,” so to speak, of the legal principle of “reasonable expectation of privacy.” As with so many phrases used in law, legal interpretation is required to give the terms a more robust character and to solidify the meaning so that the mere hearing of the term conjures up the correct legal principle or the proper connections to be made between case law and precedents. The term of “reasonable expectation of privacy” is one of those terms which requires this incremental corporeality in order to make the law more certain. This is particularly needed in the Charter universe where heady terms like “Liberty” and “Freedom”, which by the way are not synonymous according to Chief Justice Dickson in the Edwards Books and Arts case, delineate the parameters of our Charter rights.

Certainly, the Supreme Court of Canada did not disappoint in the Cole decision, as they “filled in” the term in relation to the work place. In doing so, the court answered the question of whether or not there is a line drawn between personal and work and if so, where that line can and should be drawn. Of course, the judgment is not so practical as to suggest the exact place in which the line rests, but it does serve as a guideline for the employer-employee relationship. This posting, however, will not be a critical legal analysis of the judgment in relation to the answer provided by the court. Instead, this posting focuses on one paragraph, indeed the second paragraph of the majority judgment written by Justice Fish.

The second paragraph reads as follows:

Computers that are reasonably used for personal purposes — whether found in the workplace or the home — contain information that is meaningful, intimate, and touching on the user’s biographical core. Vis-a-vis the state, everyone in Canada is constitutionally entitled to expect privacy in personal information of this kind.

Two concepts found in this paragraph hold my interest. The first is the striking way in which the court defined the personal information found on a computer as “meaningful, intimate, and touching on the user’s biographical core.” Interestingly, this description, which does not refer to any previous case law, does, on a close reading, come from two earlier Supreme Court of Canada cases, which although are related to reasonable expectation of privacy in a search and seizure context, are not related to information found on a computer.

The first is the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada case, R v Tessling. This case is familiar to most criminal lawyers faced with an unreasonable search and seizure or section 8 challenge. Tessling involved the use by the RCMP of FLIR or forward looking infra-red technology. In this instance, the RCMP employed a FLIR camera on an overflight of property, which revealed infra-red images of the emission of heat radiating from the suspect property. The abnormally large amount of heat radiating from the observed property, together with informant information, resulted in the issuance of a search warrant. Police found on the property a large quantity of marijuana and weapons. Counsel at trial argued the overflight using the FLIR camera was an unreasonable search and seizure. The trial judge disagreed and the accused was convicted. However, the Court of Appeal for Ontario reversed the decision, finding there was a violation of s.8 and the evidence was excluded under s.24(2) of the Charter.

The Supreme Court of Canada, through the unanimous decision written by Justice Binnie (an Ontario appointment), did not agree with the provincial appellate court. They did agree that the ability to be free from state action while at our home (as in "the house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress": Semayne's Case, [1558-1774] All E.R. Rep. 62 (1604)), unless there was prior judicial authorization to do so, was of paramount importance. Justice Binnie discussed how this concept of territorial privacy of the home has expanded to the protection of the bodily integrity of the person through the protection of the privacy of being at home. Thus, being at home suggests, “being the place where our most intimate and private activities are most likely to take place.” It is these activities, which the Charter must zealously safeguard.

In the end, the FLIR camera, revealing only heat images, did not step into the private refuge of the home. Equally, the camera did not step into the “intimate and private” activities, which are core to personal integrity and self-identity of a person as a human being.

Another issue discussed by Justice Binnie in Tessling, brings us to the second Supreme Court of Canada case to characterize personal information as “meaningful, intimate, and touching on the user’s biographical core.” According to Justice Binnie, the difficult decision was where to draw the line: at what point does the state over step their authority and wander improperly and, more importantly, unreasonably into the private lives of an individual. This too was the issue with which the Court struggled to understand in Cole.

To answer this, Justice Binnie turned to Justice Sopinka’s words in R v Plant (1993), another unreasonable search and seizure case involving a warrantless perimeter search of a dwelling house. Justice Sopinka, in starting from the underlying values of the Charter of “dignity, integrity, and autonomy,” found it an intellectually easy journey that

s. 8 of the Charter should seek to protect a biographical core of personal information which individuals in a free and democratic society would wish to maintain and control from dissemination to the state. This would include information which tends to reveal intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of the individual. (Emphasis in bold added)

Thus, it is out of a nuanced discussion on the privacy of the home, which expanded the concept of the “home as our castle” metaphor to another metaphor found in the idiom “home is where the heart is,” suggesting that it is not the structure that reflects who we are but what is inside – the people and the thoughts we leave behind.

As an aside, the 2011 Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in R v Trapp, which is also a child pornography matter considering the “reasonable expectation of privacy”, utilized these cases in determining the legality of the seizure of information from the accused’s internet service provider. In fact, Justice Cameron, speaking for the court, reviewed this seizure

to identify the import or quality of this information, having regard for the principle that section 8 protects a biographical core of personal information, including information tending to reveal intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of the individual.(Emphasis added)

Such an analysis lead the court to conclude that the seizure of the information was not contrary to the Charter.

This brings me to the second point arising from this short second paragraph written by Justice Fish. The finding in Cole not only “fills in” the term “reasonable expectation of privacy” but also “fills in” or further defines the Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of the Charter; the concept that the Charter reflects the underlying fundamental values of our society. The Cole decision merely continues the line of cases, which embrace the idea that Charter values, not necessarily concrete or corporeal Charter terms, lend meaning to Charter rights. Thus, it is the concept of “meaningful, intimate, and touching on the user’s biographical core,” coming from Charter values, which delineates the line of reasonableness.

Now back to the Cole case and the further expansion of personal information, as protected by Charter values, to personal information contained on a computer hard drive. Now, the private world of an individual’s has shrunk from the home as the container of our most intimate and meaningful thoughts to the nano-world of computers. Like a diary, the computer captures a timeline of who we are and who we want to be: our desires, our dreams, and our inner most thoughts. Recognizing this decision is truly a further “filling in” of Charter values helps us understand this decision more thoroughly and causes us to consider what will be next. Perhaps the intimacy of details on Facebook and other such sites will prove to attract more protection than initially thought. In any event, it is clear that the sanctity of the home has become the sanctity of the hard drive.