Friday, October 19, 2012

Supreme Court of Canada finds reasonable expectation of privacy in work-issued laptop

The Supreme Court of Canada just released its decision in R v Cole, 2012 SCC 53, in which a majority of justices of the Court held that a teacher at a school had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his work-issued laptop. Nevertheless, evidence of child pornography found on it by the school, which was then given to the police, was found to be admissible evidence.

This is bound to be a controversial decision that will have repercussions in the employment law context as well as in criminal trials.

Here's the headnote from the case:

R v Cole, 2012 SCC 53


Constitutional law — Charter of Rights — Search and seizure — Information contained on computer — Pornographic pictures of child found on employer-issued work computer — Whether accused had reasonable expectation of privacy in employer-issued work computer — Whether warrantless search and seizure of laptop computer and disc containing Internet files breached accused’s rights under s. 8 of Charter — If so, whether evidence ought to be excluded pursuant to s. 24(2) of Charter.

The accused, a high-school teacher, was charged with possession of child pornography and unauthorized use of a computer. He was permitted to use his work-issued laptop computer for incidental personal purposes which he did. While performing maintenance activities, a technician found on the accused’s laptop a hidden folder containing nude and partially nude photographs of an underage female student. The technician notified the principal, and copied the photographs to a compact disc. The principal seized the laptop, and school board technicians copied the temporary Internet files onto a second disc. The laptop and both discs were handed over to the police, who without a warrant reviewed their contents and then created a mirror image of the hard drive for forensic purposes. The trial judge excluded all of the computer material pursuant to ss. 8 and 24(2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The summary conviction appeal court reversed the decision, finding that there was no s. 8 breach. The Court of Appeal for Ontario set aside that decision and excluded the disc containing the temporary Internet files, the laptop and the mirror image of its hard drive. The disc containing the photographs of the student was found to be legally obtained and therefore admissible. As the trial judge had wrongly excluded this evidence, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial.

Held (Abella J. dissenting): The appeal should be allowed. The exclusionary order of the Court of Appeal is set aside and the order of a new trial is affirmed.

Per McLachlin C.J., and LeBel, Fish, Rothstein, Cromwell and Moldaver JJ.: 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. Canadians may therefore reasonably expect privacy in the information contained on these computers, at least where personal use is permitted or reasonably expected. Ownership of property is a relevant consideration, but is not determinative. Workplace policies are also not determinative of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Whatever the policies state, one must consider the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether privacy is a reasonable expectation in the particular situation. While workplace policies and practices may diminish an individual’s expectation of privacy in a work computer, these sorts of operational realities do not in themselves remove the expectation entirely. A reasonable though diminished expectation of privacy is nonetheless a reasonable expectation of privacy, protected by s. 8 of the Charter. Accordingly, it is subject to state intrusion only under the authority of a reasonable law.

The police in this case infringed the accused’s rights under s. 8 of the Charter. The accused’s personal use of his work-issued laptop generated information that is meaningful, intimate, and organically connected to his biographical core. Pulling in the other direction are the ownership of the laptop by the school board, the workplace policies and practices, and the technology in place at the school. These considerations diminished the accused’s privacy interest in his laptop, at least in comparison to a personal computer, but they did not eliminate it entirely. On balance, the totality of the circumstances support the objective reasonableness of the accused’s subjective expectation of privacy. While the principal had a statutory duty to maintain a safe school environment, and, by necessary implication, a reasonable power to seize and search a school-board issued laptop, the lawful authority of the accused’s employer to seize and search the laptop did not furnish the police with the same power. Furthermore, a third party cannot validly consent to a search or otherwise waive a constitutional protection on behalf of another. The school board was legally entitled to inform the police of its discovery of contraband on the laptop. This would doubtless have permitted the police to obtain a warrant to search the computer for the contraband. But receipt of the computer from the school board did not afford the police warrantless access to the personal information contained within it. This information remained subject, at all relevant times, to the accused’s reasonable and subsisting expectation of privacy.

Unconstitutionally obtained evidence should be excluded under s. 24(2) if, considering all of the circumstances, its admission would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. The conduct of the police officer in this case was not an egregious breach of the Charter. While the police officer did attach great importance to the school board’s ownership of the laptop, he did not do so to the exclusion of other considerations. The officer sincerely, though erroneously, considered the accused’s Charter interests. Further, the officer had reasonable and probable grounds to obtain a warrant. Had he complied with the applicable constitutional requirements, the evidence would necessarily have been discovered. Finally, the evidence is highly reliable and probative physical evidence. The exclusion of the material would have a marked negative impact on the truth-seeking function of the criminal trial process. The admission of the evidence would not bring the administration of justice into disrepute and therefore the evidence should not be excluded.

Generally speaking, the decision to exclude evidence under s. 24(2) should be final. In very limited circumstances however, a material change of circumstances may justify a trial judge to revisit an exclusionary order. In this case, the Court of Appeal invited the trial judge to re-assess the admissibility of the temporary Internet files disc if the evidence becomes important to the truth-seeking function as the trial unfolds. Unconstitutionally obtained evidence, once excluded, will not become admissible simply because the Crown cannot otherwise satisfy its burden to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.

Per Abella J. (dissenting): While it is agreed that there has been a Charter breach, the evidence in this case should be excluded under s. 24(2). The Charter-infringing conduct in this case was serious in its disregard for central and well-established Charter standards. The police officer had years of experience in investigating cyber-crime and was expected to follow established Charter jurisprudence. Further, the police officer’s exclusive reliance on ownership to determine whether a warrant was required, was unreasonable and contradicted a finding of good faith for the purposes of s. 24(2). There were also no exigent circumstances or other legitimate reasons preventing the police from getting a warrant. The decision not to get a warrant mandates in favour of exclusion.

The impact of the breach on the accused’s Charter-protected interests, even assuming that his reasonable expectation of privacy was reduced because it was a workplace computer, was significant given the extent of the intrusion into his privacy. The warrantless search and seizure in this case included the entire contents of the accused’s computer. It had no restrictions as to scope. The extent of the search of the accused’s hard drive and browsing history was significant and weighs in favour of exclusion.

Finally, while the evidence in this case is reliable, its importance to the prosecution’s case is at best speculative given that the pornographic photographs themselves were admitted.

Balancing these factors, and in light of the deference owed to trial judges in applying s. 24(2), the evidence should be excluded.

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