Emergency Wiretaps and Privacy Rights

Well, the Supreme Court of Canada has great timing. Or maybe I do, but saying that would be immodest, right? In any case, the day after I wrote that the Court latest privacy decision was a mess, it has released its decision in R. v. Tse, 2012 SCC 16, addressing the conflict bewteen the right to privacy protected by s. 8 of the Charter and s. 184.4 of the Criminal Code authorizing warrantless interception of private communications by a peace officer if

(a) the peace officer believes on reasonable grounds that the urgency of the situation is such that an authorization could not, with reasonable diligence, be obtained … ;
(b) the peace officer believes on reasonable grounds that such an interception is immediately necessary to prevent an unlawful act that would cause serious harm to any person or to property; and
(c) either the originator of the private communication or the person intended by the originator to receive it is the person who would perform the act that is likely to cause the harm or is the victim, or intended victim, of the harm.

The Court’s decision is unanimous, and authored by its two newest members, Justices Karakatsanis and Moldaver. The Court holds s. 184.4 unconstitutional, because it does not create any mechanisms by which the peace officers engaging in warrantless wiretapping can be held accountable. Parliament now has a year to re-write the legislation to bring it in conformity with the Charter.

Generally speaking, warrantless searches (including interceptions of private communications) are contrary to the Charter. But they can be justified in emergencies. The question in this case, says the Court, is whether s. 184.4 “strike[s] a reasonable balance between an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures and society’s interest in preventing serious harm?” The Court spends a considerable time on clarifying the interpretation of s. 184.4, ensuring that it remains a narrow and exceptional source of authority, to be used only in circumstances of “dire emergency.” It also expresses concern at the fact that this authority might be conferred on too many people – not only police officers but other “peace officers”, including mayors and prison guards. But since this case implicates police officers, there is no record on the basis of which to conclude that this renders s. 184.4 over-broad.

The trouble with s. 184.4, says the Court, is that, unlike other provisions allowing interception of private communications, its use is subject to no after-the-fact accountability measures. At least one such measure, disclosure to the parties whose communications were intercepted, is constitutionally required. Others, such as reporting to Parliament and record-keeping would be welcome, but are not necessary. In its present form, s. 184.4 does not meet the requirements of s.8 Charter. Furthermore, it cannot be saved under s. 1, since a less restrictive measure – a similar provision incorporating after-the-fact notice requirements – is easily available to Parliament.

Seems like a good decision to me. Interestingly, expectations of privacy do not feature at all in the Court’s analysis. It does not ask itself whether it is generally expected that infringements of our privacy will be reported to us. It simply holds that that the Charter requires that they be. Perhaps this is one way out of the problem which so bothered Judge Kozinski and about which I wrote yesterday. Still, courts cannot operate in a vacuum. When they ask themselves whether a search of seizure is “unreasonable,” they bring their, and society’s, expectations to the table. We cannot count on courts to protect our privacy to a much greater extent than we want it protected.

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