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Supreme Court of Canada rules warrant required for computer and cell phone searches

Vancouver – The BC Civil Liberties Association reacted to today’s decision from the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Vu, requiring a warrant to search computers and cell phones in certain situations. The BCCLA was an intervener in the case.

Raji Mangat, Counsel for the BCCLA stated: “The BCCLA is very pleased with the Court’s decision. By requiring police to obtain a specific warrant to search computers and similar devices before the fact, the Court has put the brakes on run away searches of vast quantities of highly personal and private information. We are pleased to see the Court continue to emphasize the highly invasive nature of computer searches and the nearly unlimited information that can be retrieved.”

In this case, a warrant was issued to search for evidence related to the possible theft of electricity at a house in Langley, BC. The warrant and the information to obtain the warrant did not call for the search or seizure of computers. In executing the warrant, the police found two computers and a cell phone in the house, examination of which led them to identify Mr. Vu as the occupant. Pot plants were also found in the residence. On the basis of information found on the computers, Mr. Vu was charged with offences relating to the production and possession of marijuana.

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously rejected the view that the traditional legal framework relating to the law of search and seizure is appropriate for searches of computers and similar mobile devices. Under the traditional framework, once the police obtain a warrant to search a place for certain things, they can look for those things anywhere in the place where they may reasonably be found. For instance, the police do not require a specific warrant to search in a filing cabinet or a briefcase.

The Court emphasized the highly intrusive invasion of privacy resulting from the search of a computer and focused on the unique status of computers and similar devices as “portals to an almost infinite amount of information.” Rejecting the view that computers are merely receptacles like briefcases or filing cabinets, the Court held that prior judicial authorization in the form of a warrant is required for the search of computers and smart phones. Even where there is a warrant for a computer search, the police are not permitted to “scour the devices indiscriminately.”