Ontario CA on computer searches – broad access and targeted searches endorsed

Yesterday the Ontario Court of Appeal issued a judgment in which it held the police violated section 8 of the Charter by proceeding with a lawfully authorized search of a personal computer after finding evidence of a crime that was not within the scope of authorization.

The police were granted a warrant that permitted the search of a computer to find evidence of fraud. In the course of searching the computer for such evidence, they found images believed to be of child pornography. After seeking legal advice, the police continued and found videos believed to be of child pornography.

The accused brought a Charter application. One issue was whether the broad authorization to search the computer (without date or file type limitations) was reasonable. Another was whether, having found the images, the police should have stopped to obtain a second warrant.

On the scope of the warrant, Justice Blair accepted arguments by the Crown about the need for a forgiving rule because of the challenges in conducting a computer search. He said that “the language used to authorize computer searches may need to be relatively broad in order to cope with the practical realities of an ever-changing and developing age of technology” and held the warrant at issue was reasonable on its face because it precisely defined the kind of evidence to be sought (i.e., evidence of fraud).

Significantly, Justice Blair suggested that the need to authorize access in broad terms justifies the imposition of a duty to search with care. The following are the most relevant passages:

Thus, authorizing a search of the contents of a computer is not unlike authorizing a search of another “place” or of a more expansive search of the same “place.” There seems to me to be no reason in principle why the state should be any more entitled to roam around through the contents of a person’s computer in an indiscriminate fashion than it would be to do so in a person’s home without further authorization.

The police have available to them the necessary software, technology and expertise to enable them to tailor their searches in a fashion that will generate the information they seek, if it exists, while at the same time minimizing the intrusion on the computer user’s privacy rights in other information stored on the computer. Sergeant Rumnyak testified that the EnCase software used in this case permits the police to view all data and all files contained on the computer but that the police do not normally look at all files in the course of an investigation; they focus on those they think will generate the evidence they are looking for. That is as it should be.

Consistent with this protective view, Justice Blair held that the police may seize incriminating evidence that is beyond the scope of a warrant if it is found, but must stop and obtain a warrant before continuing search for additional incriminating evidence. He therefore held that the police violated section 8 by failing to stop upon finding the accused’s incriminating pictures. According to Justice Blair, they should have sought a warrant.

On first read, it seems like the suggested duty to conduct a targeted search (my words) creates a good basis for scrutinizing computer searches and is likely to put significant pressure on law enforcement to undertake a logical, minimally intrusive search. I’m also curious whether the search process is as tidy as the summary of evidence above makes it seem.

R. v. Jones, 2011 ONCA 632.

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