Not Such a Simple Thing

A divided Supreme Court expands the powers of search incident to arrest

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a decision, R. v. Saeed, 2016 SCC 24, that was further evidence of its majority’s expansive views of the police’s powers of search incident to arrest ― and trust in judicially developed checklists to prevent the abuse of these powers. Meanwhile, by writing an opinion which, although concurring with the majority in the result, rejected its approach, Justice Karakatsanis confirmed her role as the Court’s leading ― if only in dissent ― privacy-protecting voice. To that extent, the case was a reprise of the Court’s earlier decision in  R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 621, where it considered the powers of the police to search an unlocked cell phone incident to arrest. (I commented on that case here.)

The issue in Saeed, was whether the police could conduct a penile swab on a man arrested on suspicion of sexual assault (or effectively force him to do it for them) in order to obtain the victim’s DNA ― without a warrant. In an opinion by Justice Moldaver, a seven-judge majority answered that question in the affirmative. Justice Karakatsanis disagreed, but would have admitted the evidence under section 24(2) of the Charter. Justice Abella dissented, endorsing Justice Karakatsanis’ approach to the main issue, but being of the view that the evidence was not admissible.

The friend of a victim of a brutal sexual assault having pointed to Mr. Saeed as the perpetrator, the police arrested him. Some time later, having concluded that a penile swab would potentially uncover useful evidence, the police placed Mr. Saeed, fully clothed, “in a dry cell, with no toilet or running water, to preserve the evidence. Mr. Saeed was handcuffed to the wall to prevent him from licking his hands or otherwise washing away evidence,” [18] for 30 or 40 minutes. Eventually, Mr. Saeed took the swab, under the direction of two male police officers, who were the only persons present. “The procedure took at most two minutes.” [25]

* * *

Justice Moldaver begins his reasons by asserting ― without much of an explanation ―  that “perhaps more than any other search power,” the “ancient and venerable power” of search incident to arrest “is used by the police on a daily basis to detect, prevent, and solve crimes.” [1] This power extends, he concludes, to the taking of a penile swab, although he “agree[s] that the common law power of search incident to arrest must be tailored to protect the enhanced privacy interests involved.” [42]

Despite the privacy implications, the taking of a penile swab is not, in Justice Moldaver’s view, analogous to that of a bodily sample ― which cannot be carried out as a search incident to arrest. The swab does not reveal information about the arrested person’s body ― it aim is to find the DNA of the complainant. It is also not particularly invasive ― or at any rate less invasive than the taking of dental impressions. Finally, the material it serves to collect can be removed quite quickly, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Justice Moldaver emphasizes the usefulness of collecting this material for prosecuting sexual assaults ― or indeed for exonerating an innocent suspect.  “This type of evidence,” he points out, “is highly reliable. It can be crucial in the case of complainants who are unable to testify, such as children, adults with disabilities, or those who have died or suffered serious injuries as a result of the offence or otherwise.” [59] For this reason, to require consent for a penile swab ― as the United Kingdom does ―  “effectively disregards the interests of victims of sexual assault … and all but ignores the public interest in bringing sexual offenders to justice.” [61] As for requiring a warrant, obtaining one takes time ― hours perhaps ― and thus involves “leaving accused persons to wait for an indefinite period in an uncomfortable and potentially degrading position,” “handcuffed without access to water or toilet facilities … in order to preserve the evidence.” [65]

Justice Moldaver cautions that a penile “swab must be truly incident to the arrest, in the sense that the swab must be related to the reasons for the arrest, and it must be performed for a valid purpose” [74]; that there must be reasonable grounds for conducting one; and that it must be conducted in a reasonable manner, to which end he supplies a list of 10 “factors” or guidelines, admonishing the police to proceed expeditiously, to explain the procedure to the arrested person, to respect his privacy to the extent possible, and to keep records. In Mr. Saeed’s case, the police acted consistently with these guidelines, and the evidence they collected is, accordingly, admissible.

* * *

As she had done in Fearon, Justice Karakatsanis takes a much narrower view of the power of search incident to arrest. She is much more concerned about the privacy interests of the accused, and more skeptical of the ability of courts to prevent abuses by supplying guidelines for the police.

For Justice Karakatsanis, a genital swab (notice, by the way, the gender-neutral terminology she uses, in contrast to Justice Moldaver) are no different from “mouth swabs, dental impressions and hair samples [which] cannot be taken as part of searches incident to arrest because they represent too great an infringement of bodily integrity and affront to privacy and dignity.” [99] Indeed,  “[a] swab of the genital area is far more damaging to personal dignity and privacy than a swab of the inside of the mouth or a pluck of hair from the head,” [101] and this is especially the case for a woman. That a genital swab doesn’t serve to collect information about the individual on whom it is conducted does not matter. The affront to the person’s dignity is the key consideration. However, whatever its purpose, “an effect of the seizure is to put the individual’s DNA in the hands of the state.” [104]

Justice Karakatsanis also notes that “if there is no lawful means by which the police could collect the evidence, ever,” ― and there may not be such means to collect the evidence yielded by a genital swab, as it is not clear that a warrant to collect it can be lawfully issued under the Criminal Code

it would not matter how long the evidence lasts.  Nothing would be lost when the evidence disappeared — no state interests would be compromised —because even if the evidence had survived, the police would have had no lawful authority to collect it. [108]

Further, Justice Karakatsanis argues that although it is not clear that it is actually necessary to handcuff a person in a dry cell in order to preserve the evidence while waiting for a genital swab, if it is,

this necessity could not be used to justify the greater affront to dignity that a genital swab would represent.  One indignity cannot justify another.  It would be ironic indeed if [section 8 of the Charter] did not protect individuals from the indignity of genital swabs precisely because it protects them from the indignity of detention in dry cells. [113]

Finally, Justice Karakatsanis is unconvinced that judicially developed safeguards can effectively protect the privacy interests of all those who may come into contact with the police ― and not only the subset of suspects who will be charged and thus have an opportunity to seek to exclude evidence against them. If Parliament wants to authorize genital swabs by statute, it can do so, but the common law power of search incident to arrest does not extend so far.

Justice Karakatsanis ultimately agrees that the evidence against Mr. Saeed should be admitted, because its admission does not bring the administration of justice into disrepute, not least because “the law on this issue was unsettled at the time of this seizure and the police acted on their understanding of the law.” [129] Justice Abella, who agrees with her section 8 analysis, does not agree with this and dissents.

* * *

For my part, I’m inclined to agree with Justice Karakatsanis. She is right that the distinction which Justice Moldaver draws between the swab at issue here and the taking of other bodily samples ― that the penile swab does not yield, or rather is not intended to yield, the DNA of the person on whom it is performed rather misses the point of the prohibition on taking bodily samples. I also think that she is right to focus on preventing unconstitutional infringements of privacy, and right that this is best accomplished by having clear prospective rules, and not lengthy checklist to be applied, if at all, by judges after the fact. Beyond these specific points, I am concerned by the expansion of the power of search incident to arrest ― including to cases where, as here, those searches take place many hours after the arrest, in the secure confines of a police station rather than in the unpredictable environment in the field. It hardly needs to be said that Justice Moldaver’s paean to that “venerable” power does nothing to soothe my worries.

I will end with a couple of thoughts about judging. It is sometimes suggested, in the heat of controversies about the judicial system’s handling of cases of sexual assault, that male judges systematically fail to empathize with the victims, leading to perpetrators getting off the hook. There is no denying that this sometimes happens. But Saeed shows that one should be careful with generalizations. Here, the Court’s five men sign on to an opinion overtly driven, in significant measure, by concerns about the difficulty of prosecuting sexual assaults. Two of the women members of the Court, by contrast, dissent from their approach, in the name of respect for privacy rights.

No doubt, a judge is influenced in part by his or her background and personal experiences. But that influence is surely more complex than a reflex that causes women to react in one way and men in another. Nor is background the only thing that influences a judge. Adjudication, even in cases involving sexual assault, should not be seen through the lens of a zero-sum battle of the sexes ― unless, of course, a specific judge gives us cause to do so in a specific case. Unless the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion, we should treat judges as thinking human beings ― apt err sometimes, perhaps often ― but thinking all the same, and not mere automatons.

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