The Supreme Court of Canada issued R v Fearon on December 11th. A 4-3 majority held that the police can search a cell phone incident to arrest without a warrant but subject to various limitations prescribed by the Court. One always must be careful in drawing too much from the Court’s handling of a specific issue in a specific context, but the dialogue between the majority and minority about the mitigating effect of a computer inspection protocol is notable for organizations.
The majority allows warrantless searches, in part, based on a finding that the privacy impact of a cell phone search incident to arrest can be meaningfully mitigated by the application of a “tailored” inspection. Justice Cromwell explains:
First, the scope of the search must be tailored to the purpose for which it may lawfully be conducted. In other words, it is not enough that a cell phone search in general terms is truly incidental to the arrest. Both the nature and the extent of the search performed on the cell phone must be truly incidental to the particular arrest for the particular offence. In practice, this will mean that, generally, even when a cell phone search is permitted because it is truly incidental to the arrest, only recently sent or drafted emails, texts, photos and the call log may be examined as in most cases only those sorts of items will have the necessary link to the purposes for which prompt examination of the device is permitted. But these are not rules, and other searches may in some circumstances be justified. The test is whether the nature and extent of the search are tailored to the purpose for which the search may lawfully be conducted. To paraphrase Caslake, the police must be able to explain, within the permitted purposes, what they searched and why: see para. 25.
This approach responds to the privacy concerns posed by the virtually infinite storage capacity of cell phones by, in general, excluding resort to that capacity in a search incident to arrest. It would also provide these protections while preserving the ability of the police to have resort to basic cell phone data where this serves the purposes for which searches incident to arrest are permitted.
Given the Crown bears the onus of establishing a reasonable search incident to arrest, the majority makes clear that police must take “detailed notes” of their inspection process.
For the minority, the privacy interest in a cell phone is too great to permit any warantless intrusion. Justice Karakatsanis also calls the majority’s reliance on the mitigating effect of a tailored inspection protocol “complicated,” “impractical” and inviting of “after-the-fact litigation.”
Organizations have been reckoning with an expectation of privacy on workplace computers since the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2012 finding in R v Cole. I’ve argued elsewhere that, notwithstanding Cole, the standard for employer searches will likely remain reasonably permissive. The reasoning in Fearon can be used by employers to argue for a permissive search standard. Employers should be careful, however, to (1) document the purpose of their inspections and (2) follow a logical, documented inspection process. Justice Karakatsanis is correct; litigation about the manner in which a computer inspection has been conducted is too easy to foresee.