Gymnasium improprieties

Another case that got diverted to the irrelevant question of when the police can use sniffer dogs is R v AM [2008] SCC 19 (25 April 2008), in which the Court’s decision released the same day, R v Kang-Brown (see last blog), was applied.

Police officers carried out a search of a school with the permission of the headmaster who had given them a long-standing invitation to do so. There were no reasonable grounds to believe that drugs would be found on this particular day. The students were told by the headmaster to remain in their classrooms during the search. Using a sniffer dog called Chief, bags in the gymnasium were examined and Chief indicated that there were drugs in a particular backpack.

The admissibility of the evidence – variously described as 10 bags of marijuana (para22), 5 bags (para 109) or several bags (para 154), allegedly in possession for trafficking, and about 10 magic mushrooms, the subject of an allegation of possession simpliciter) – was determined by balancing various policy matters. These do not need to be discussed here, although they are of great public interest. It was held, in each of the courts in which this case was considered, that the evidence was inadmissible.

On the misconduct side of the balance, the only relevant point could be the absence of grounds for the search until the dog indicated the presence of the drugs. There is really no other impropriety: the police were on the premises at the invitation of the occupier who was undoubtedly in loco parentis, during school hours, in relation to the pupil whose bag was searched. There is no need for grounds to exist when a search is carried out by consent, so, on this view, there was no misconduct at all.

So, why did the SCC uphold the exclusion of the evidence? By finding that the Charter rights of every student in the school had been violated (para 15). And,

“62 The backpacks from which the odour emanated here belonged to various members of the student body including the accused. As with briefcases, purses and suitcases, backpacks are the repository of much that is personal, particularly for people who lead itinerant lifestyles during the day as in the case of students and travellers. No doubt ordinary businessmen and businesswomen riding along on public transit or going up and down on elevators in office towers would be outraged at any suggestion that the contents of their briefcases could randomly be inspected by the police without “reasonable suspicion” of illegality. Because of their role in the lives of students, backpacks objectively command a measure of privacy.

“63 As the accused did not testify, the question of whether or not he had a subjective expectation of privacy in his backpack must be inferred from the circumstances. While teenagers may have little expectation of privacy from the searching eyes and fingers of their parents, I think it obvious that they expect the contents of their backpacks not to be open to the random and speculative scrutiny of the police. This expectation is a reasonable one that society should support.”

These remarks are controversial, and they contrast with those of the dissenters, Deschamps and Rothstein JJ at 119, 128 – 140. The difference reflects how rights arguments can become too abstract to remain in touch with societal needs.

This is not to say that exclusion of different things found would always follow in cases that were, in other respects, similar. As Binnie J (delivering the judgment of himself and McLachlin CJ) observed at 37, the seriousness of the detected offending is a relevant consideration. Apparently, in this case, the risk posed to other pupils, and the likely consequences of detection to the offender, did not outweigh the harm that would be caused to the pupil by breach of what was held to be his privacy right in respect to the contents of his backpack.

Opinions will vary about whether the Court has successfully “bridged the gap between law and society” (as Aharon Barak puts the judicial role in “The Judge in a Democracy” (2006)) or whether it has increased that gap.

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