Supreme Court decisions on ‘reasonable suspicion’ searches set disconcertingly low bar for police

September 27, 2013

The Supreme Court released its decisions in R. v. MacKenzie and R. v. Chehil this morning, a pair of cases involving police searches with sniffer dogs and the ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard. CCLA is concerned that the Court’s general formulation of the reasonable suspicion standard – that the evidence must support a possibility of criminal behaviour in light of the circumstances – sets a very low bar for authorizing police detentions and searches. Moreover, while a number of CCLA’s points were reflected in the Court’s broad statement of principles, the application of principles in these appeals gives rise to serious concerns about courts’ ability to meaningfully scrutinize and restrain police behaviour in such circumstances.

Currently under Canadian law, police are authorized to conduct a warrantless sniffer dog search if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an individual is involved in criminal activity. CCLA had argued that a rigorous, restrictive approach must be taken when examining the content of the ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard. As Justice Binnie stated in the first Supreme Court case that considered this issue, the court’s after-the-fact examination of police conduct is the only protection an individual has against this particular form of unlawful searches. CCLA urged the Court to clarify that the police must be able to offer objectively-verifiable evidence, and a proven link between ‘suspicious’ facts they observed and crime. Over-reliance on generalized malleable ’profiles’ of criminals or unsupported assertions of police expertise opens the door to stereotyping and profiling. Assertion of rights – in particular the right to silence – must not be used to contribute to an officer’s ‘reasonable suspicion’. And finally, the number of innocent people who could be falsely caught up in warrantless searches and detentions must also be taken into consideration.

The unanimous judgment in Chehil does reflect a number of CCLA’s points. In particular, the Court held that exercise of Charter rights should not provide grounds for reasonable suspicion, and that stereotyping and discriminatory factors have “no place” in the reasonable suspicion analysis. The Court also affirmed that a “police officer’s educated guess must not supplant … rigorous and independent scrutiny” and that “[a] method of searching that captures an inordinate number of innocent individuals cannot be reasonable, due to the unnecessary infringement of privacy and personal dignity that an arrest would bring.” CCLA also welcome’s the Court’s rejection of the government’s arguments that individuals do not enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in airports.

The application of these principles, however, gives a potentially alarming latitude to the police to stop, search and detain private individuals. In the MacKenzie case, the trial judge had concluded that there was not enough to support a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that Mr. MacKenzie was trafficking drugs. The trial court’s summary of the officer’s reasons for suspicion included “the driver’s “very high level of nervousness”; … the pinkish hue of the driver’s eyes, which in the police officer’s opinion is consistent with the use of marihuana; and the course of travel of the driver, which was from Calgary to Regina.” Although the officer testified that Calgary was a known source of narcotics and Regina was a known destination of sale, no evidence was offered to support that opinion. The BC Court of Appeal overturned the trial court, ruling that the officer’s observations were enough to support a “reasonable suspicion” that Mr. MacKenzie was trafficking drugs. Similarly, in the Chehil case, the “reasonable suspicion” was based on the observations that Mr. Chehil was travelling alone, that he had bought a one-way ticket from Vancouver to Halifax at the airline counter using cash, and that he had checked a relatively new, locked suitcase. Again, the trial judge found there was not enough objective evidence to support a reasonable suspicion, and the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned the ruling.

The majority of the Supreme Court held that, in both cases, the searches were justified based on the officers’ observations, training and experience. CCLA is concerned that the vague, broad nature of the ‘evidence’ upholding the searches in these cases will open the door to police conducting searches and detentions of vast numbers of innocent individuals. The Association particularly agrees with the strong dissent in MacKenzie, that the ‘evidence’ identified by the police officer should not have been sufficient to support a privacy-intrusive search. Although we will need to wait for future cases to determine how the standard is being interpreted and applied by lower courts, CCLA is concerned that the majority’s application of principles to the facts will open the door for the police to engage in speculative searches and detentions based on generalized suspicion and after-the-fact justifications.

To read the Court’s decision in Chehil click here.

To read the Court’s decision in MacKenzie click here.

To read the CCLA’s factum in the appeal click here.