Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy, under the Charter, for hydro and electricity Records under s. 8? If so, should that evidence be excluded due to a breach of those rights?

Published On: Aug 19,2017

August 19, 2017

In Regina v. Orlandis-Habsburgo, 2017 ONCA 649, the Ontario Court of Appeal stated there is but given the applicable law at the time of the indexed offence, the police could not be criticized for their conduct and the evidence was admitted in either event despite the breach of the defendants’ Charter Rights by J.S. Patel, Barrister:  403-585-1960 or 1-888-695-2211

Two (2) accused persons in this case rented a home in a residential area in Hamilton, Ontario where they operated a commercial-sized marihuana grow-op in the basement.   Their energy provider was Horizon Utilities Corp their energy provider. It was a Government Corporation, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) applied to its conduct.  That company had observed an irregular pattern of electricity use in the indexed residence that lead to the possible inference that the residence was being used as for to facilitate a marihuana grow-op. The energy company forwarded information pertaining to the electricity use in the residence to the police.  Based on the information received, the police began an investigation that included observations of the residence.  What is more, the police requested and obtained additional information from the energy provider about the ongoing electricity use at the residence; and electricity use by comparator customers.  Eventually, the police applied for a search warrant for the residence.  Among other things, the police relied on the energy consumption information provided to them by the energy company; and a Justice of the Peace in Ontario issued the warrant.  Sometime later, the police executed the warrant and found many marihuana plants and packaged marihuana in the basement of the residence.  The results of the search warrant led to the accused being charged with production of, and possession for the purposes of trafficking in, marihuana and possession of the proceeds of crime.

Various positions were cogently advocated by the trial under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the criminal defence lawyers.  They argued that the police in Ontario violated the accused’s persons rights under s. 8 of the Charter when they acquired energy consumption data from the energy provider without either their consent or prior judicial authorization, and used that information to further a criminal investigation that eventually led to the seizure of the marihuana.  The criminal defence lawyers further asserted that without the information from the energy provider there would have been no criminal investigation, no application for a search warrant and no seizure.  On this analysis, the police use of the accused’s energy consumption records to further their investigation constituted a breach of s. 8 of the Charter, which was sufficiently connected to the discovery of the marihuana to warrant the exclusion of the marihuana under s. 24(2) of the Charter from the trial proper.  Without the marihuana, in evidence at trial, the Crown’s case would fall.  Accordingly, this determination was critical to the strategy of the defence.

Defence counsel argued alternatively, that without the information unlawfully obtained by the police from the energy provider, the affidavit relied on by the police to obtain the search warrant did not contain sufficient grounds to justify the issuing of the warrant.  As such, it was posited that the critical search should be treated as a warrantless search; and presumptively unconstitutional under the common law (Regina v. Collins; and Hunter v. Southam).  The defence further argued that a warrantless search of the residence constituted a serious breach of s. 8, warranting exclusion under s. 24(2) of the marihuana seized during the search.

Apart from the s. 8 challenge based on energy provider’s sharing of the data with the police, the defence also challenged the constitutionality of various federal and provincial “privacy” laws and regulations governing Horizon.  The defence argued that these provisions contravened s. 8 of the Charter and were of no force and effect.  To the extent that the energy provider, a government actor, relied on these provisions in providing the energy consumption records to the police, Horizon’s conduct was unlawful and constituted a breach of s. 8, warranting the exclusion of the marihuana from evidence under s. 24(2).

The Ontario Court of Appeal resolved these issues in the follow manner.  The Court (regrettably) declined to decide the issue of whether it would violate s.8 of the Charter, if the hydro company had unilaterally volunteered the usage information to the police. The company and the police had jointly and informally targeted marijuana grow operations for some time; on the facts of this case, the police involvement began at the moment an employee of the hydro company noticed the suspicious usage pattern. The Court stated at paragraphs 34 to 36:

[34]      I have considerable difficulty with the submission that s. 8 is engaged if the police look at information in which an accused has a legitimate privacy interest, even if that information is brought to the police by an independent third party acting on its own initiative.  On that approach, s. 8 would be engaged if a “whistleblower” took confidential documents belonging to her employer to the police to demonstrate the employer’s criminal activity.  Must the police refuse to look at the documents to avoid violating the employer’s s. 8 rights?  As Duarte teaches, it is one thing to say that Canadian values dictate that the state’s power to decide when and how it will intrude upon personal privacy must be carefully circumscribed, and quite another to say that an individual’s private information is cloaked in the protection of s. 8 no matter how that information comes to the police.

[35]      I need not decide whether the appellants’ s. 8 rights would be implicated if Horizon, acting on its own initiative, volunteered the energy consumption data to the police.  The evidence establishes that the police and Horizon were acting together.  They had a mutual interest in finding marihuana grow operations.   Those operations were not only criminal, but also posed a significant fire hazard and a threat to Horizon’s legitimate interests.  Personnel at Horizon and the police developed an informal arrangement whereby Horizon would share energy consumption records with the police on an ongoing basis.  Horizon or the police might initiate the request to share the information if either had reason to believe that a customer of Horizon was operating a marihuana grow-op at a particular location.  Often when Horizon provided the initial information, the police would request additional data.  Horizon always complied.

[36]      Given the arrangement between Horizon and the police, the s. 8 analysis in this case should not depend on whether it was Horizon or the police who initiated the contact that led to the police obtaining the appellants’ energy consumption data from Horizon.  I think it is a fair reflection of the relationship between Horizon and the police to treat the police investigation in this case as beginning when Mr. Franco observed the suspicious pattern of energy consumption at the appellants’ residence and forwarded the data to the police.

In the Ontario Court of Appeal’s view, the usage of the hydro information was not highly personal or revealing of the accuseds’ biographical core of information. However, it did aver that the two accused possessed a subjective and objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. The documents governing the relationship between the hydro company and its subscribers could not amount to a waiver of privacy interests under s.8, and in fact promised to maintain the privacy of subscribers’ personal information. The governing privacy legislation created no police powers of search or seizure.  Based on the foregoing the Court found that the warrantless search was unreasonable and breached s.8.

However, at paragraph 137 of the judgement, the Court of Appeal still admitted the evidence under Section s.24(2) upon conducting the requisite analysis under the common-law. Other than the warrantless search and seizure, there was nothing to criticize about the police conduct. The police acted on the state of the law as it then was and it was hard to levy such criticism against the police when they were acting on the relevant law at that time (i.e. Regina v. Gomboc, 2010 SCC 55 (CanLII), [2010] 3 S.C.R. 211). The impact on the accuseds’ Charter-protected interests was low as stated at paragraph 134 of the case where the court stated the following in relevant part

[134]   Second, the search must be regarded as warrantless because of the infringement of the appellants’ s. 8 rights occasioned by the police examination and use of the energy consumption data.  While the appellants had a reasonable expectation of privacy in that data, the data and the inferences available from it cannot be said to include core biographical information, or information that reveals intimate and personal details of a person’s lifestyle.  The information was capable of revealing one detail – the appellants were involved at a commercial level in the growing and sale of marihuana.  Further, for the reasons outlined above, the appellants’ reasonable expectation of privacy in the data was significantly attenuated.  I do not regard the police examination and use of the data as significantly undermining the values protected by s. 8 of the Charter.

In my view, several issues require canvasing in future cases.  One issue is whether the continuous use of this concerted energy provider/policing method would be held (and more heavily criticized by the Court) as valid and acceptable given the current state of the law within the scope of the s. 24(2) exclusionary remedy to determine whether the unlawfully seized ought to be excluded or included in the trial.

The issues involved in constitutional and Charter applications for the exclusion of unlawful or unreasonably obtained evidence are complicated.  An experienced lawyer ought to be consulted in making such an application.   Contact our offices at 403-585-1960 or 1-888-695-2211 for an initial consultation.

*** The opinions expressed in this Blog are not a substitute for full and through legal advice. It is not meant to be used as fulsome account of area of law discussed.  It is your responsibility to obtained a full legal opinion concerning your matter.