Monday, April 01, 2019

Ontario court refuses to order accused to unlock his smartphone

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out in January ...

The Ontario Court of Justice has refused to order an accused to unlock his smartphone or to provide the crown with the password for the device. In R v Shergill, 2019 ONCJ 54, the Crown made an application for a search warrant for a phone seized from the accused. The interesting part is that the Crown also sought an assistance order under s. 487.02 of the Criminal Code. Notably, the application was not made ex parte so the accused was able to make submissions.

The Crown argued that the accused's Charter rights were not engaged.

[3] The Crown says that basic principles of statutory interpretation allow for an accused to be the subject of an assistance order in relation to his or her own investigation. The Crown further submits that this request for an assistance order does not raise Charter concerns, but is instead a matter of mere practicality. The Crown’s factum focusses entirely on the principle against self-incrimination, submitting that the proposed assistance order does not engage that principle because it only compels Mr. Shergill to provide access to, and not create, material the police are judicially authorized to examine, and because any self-incrimination concerns are met by the grant of use immunity over Mr. Shergill’s knowledge of the password.

The Court decided in favour of the accused, finding that this order would engage the accused's right to silence and the protection against self-incrimination. The Court wrote:

(e) The Right to Silence

[21] In my view, the more significant principle of fundamental justice at stake is the right to silence. This right emerged as a component of the protection against self-incrimination in R. v. Hebert in which McLachlin J. (as she then was), held:

If the Charter guarantees against self-incrimination at trial are to be given their full effect, an effective right of choice as to whether to make a statement must exist at the pre-trial stage… the right to silence of a detained person under s. 7 of the Charter must be broad enough to accord to the detained person a free choice on the matter of whether to speak to the authorities or to remain silent.

McLachlin J. also reaffirmed the Court’s prior holding that the right to silence was “a well-settled principle that has for generations been part of the basic tenets of our law.”

[22] The “common theme” underlying the right to silence is “the idea that a person in the power of the state in the course of the criminal process has the right to choose whether to speak to the police or remain silent.” In tracing the history of the right, McLachlin J. referred to an “array of distinguished Canadian jurists who recognized the importance of the suspect’s freedom to choose whether to give a statement to the police or not” and described the essence of the right to silence as the “notion that the person whose freedom is placed in question by the judicial process must be given the choice of whether to speak to the authorities or not.”[21] Finally, Hebert held that s. 7 provides “a positive right to make a free choice as to whether to remain silent or speak to the authorities.”

[23] The pre-trial right to silence is a concept which, as Iacobucci held in R.J.S., has been “elevated to the status of a constitutional right.”[footnotes omitted]


The Court then discussed some of the challenges that law enforcement are facing in light of new technology and encryption in particular. Though there is always a compelling public interest in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, the final balancing came down on the side of the accused's liberty interests under s. 7 of the Charter.

[51] I accept that the current digital landscape as it relates to effective law enforcement and the protection of privacy presents many challenges. It may be that a different approach to this issue is warranted, whether through legislative initiatives or modifications to what I see as jurisprudence which is binding on me. But on my best application of controlling authority, I am simply not persuaded that the order sought can issue without fundamentally breaching Mr. Shergill’s s. 7 liberty interests, a breach which would not be in accordance with the principle of fundamental justice which says that he has the right to remain silent in the investigative context.

The search warrant was issued, but the assistance order was denied.