Whether text messages attract a reasonable expectation of privacy under Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and whether such evidence ought to be ought excluded from a trial viz Section 24(2) of the Charter?

Published On: Dec 14,2017

Whether text messages attract a reasonable expectation of privacy under Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and whether such evidence ought to be ought excluded from a trial viz Section 24(2) of the Charter?

Text messages that have been sent and received can, in some cases, attract a reasonable expectation of privacy and therefore can be protected under s.8 of the Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada (the “SCC”) in Regina v. Marakah, 2017 SCC 59 framed the (Orwellian) issues in this way:

Can Canadians ever reasonably expect the text messages they send to remain private, even after the messages have reached their destination? Or is the state free, regardless of the circumstances, to access text messages from a recipient’s device without a warrant? The question in this appeal is whether the guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure in s. 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can ever apply to such messages.

In a five (5): two (2) split, the SCC allowed the accused’s appeal, set aside his convictions for multiple firearms offences, and entered acquittals. The accused sent text messages dialoguing illegal transactions in firearms. The police obtained warrants to search the accused’s home and that of W. They seized the accused’s BlackBerry and W’s iPhone, searched the devices, and found incriminating text messages. It was argued at trial, by his criminal defence counsel, that the indexed messages ought not be admitted against him based on a breach of his s.8 Charter right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure. Based on the arguments and submissions made to an application judge, it was held that the warrant for the accused’s home was invalid; and that the text messages recovered from his BlackBerry could not be used against him, but that the accused had no standing to argue that the messages recovered from W’s iPhone should not be admitted against him.  The phone did not belong to him, and as such, did not retain a privacy interest in the item.  As a logical consequence of that decision, the application judge admitted the text messages and convicted the accused. A majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed the accused’s appeal.

On further appeal, the majority of the SCC held in Marakah that the accused had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages recovered from W’s iPhone, and therefore had standing to claim s.8 Charter protection for the text messages.

The majority reasoned that: the subject matter of the alleged search was the electronic conversation between the accused and W; the accused had a direct interest in the subject matter; the accused subjectively expected it to remain private; and that expectation was objectively reasonable. The majority stated that the risk that W could have disclosed the text messages to third parties did not negate the reasonableness of the accused’s expectation of privacy against state intrusion. The majority also stated that its conclusion on the issue of standing was not displaced by policy concerns.

The Crown conceded that if the accused had standing, the search was unreasonable. The text messages were thus presumptively inadmissible against the accused, subject to s.24(2) of the Charter. The majority held that the evidence should be excluded under s.24(2). The majority stated that society’s interest in the adjudication of the case on its merits favoured admission. However, the police conduct in accessing and searching the electronic conversation through W’s iPhone without a warrant two hours after his arrest was sufficiently serious to warrant exclusion. In addition, the police conduct had a considerable impact on the accused’s Charter-protected privacy interest in the electronic conversation. The majority concluded that, on balance, the admission of the evidence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

Two (2) members of the Court dissented. Justices Moldaver and Côté JJ. would have held that the accused did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text message conversations with W and therefore, he lacked standing to challenge the search of W’s phone under s.8 of the Charter. The dissenting minority stated that the accused’s lack of control over W’s phone was fatal to his reasonable expectation of privacy in the text message conversations on W’s phone, and that policy considerations supported the conclusion that the accused lacked standing under s.8.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence wherein the police have secured your mobile devices in the similar matter, contact an experienced criminal lawyer from our office.  Call J.S. Patel, Barrister at 403-585-1960 or 1-888-695-2211 for a consultation.