The power to consent to a search: a question of law or of fact?

One occasionally wonders how those who wrote the Fourth Amendment to the “Constitution for the United States of America” would have decided issues that currently come before the Supreme Court relating to the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Minute examination by the Supreme Court of the implications of the facts of individual cases has reduced the extent to which people in the United States are protected by the Fourth Amendment.

This week the reduction in protection continued: Fernandez v California
USSC No 12-7822, 25 February 2014. The issue was whether a co-tenant could give the police consent to the search of the residence she shared with the defendant. The defendant had been lawfully arrested and removed, but he had maintained his objection to the search. The police could have obtained a warrant but did not, and in giving consent to the search when the police returned to the residence about an hour after removing the defendant, she may have felt pressured (Ginsburg J dissenting, joined by Sotomayor and Kagan JJ, p 9 slip op, footnote 5; but compare footnote 2 of the opinion of the Court delivered by Alito J). The majority held that her oral and signed consent gave the police authority to search the premises, and evidence linking the defendant to a robbery was admissible.

The legal question was whether the co-tenant could give “effective” consent to the search. This – the “could” part – is a question of law. Hence the subtle jurisprudence discussing whether particular facts give rise to an occupier’s power to give consent despite the objection or absence of another occupier.

Would it be simpler – in those jurisdictions where it is still possible to do so – to treat the existence of a power to give consent as a question of fact?

For example, s 94(c) of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 [NZ] reads:

“A search by consent is unlawful if— … (c) the search is undertaken in reliance on a consent given by a person who does not have authority to give that consent.”

Currently it is regarded as “arguable” that a tenant is unable to consent to the search of the part of the premises (such as a bedroom) solely occupied by another tenant: Adams on Criminal Law, at [SS94.02]. I would go further and say that the argument would be about the facts only: whether the facts show that one co-tenant had given another the power to give consent to the search of that part of the premises.

By what can only be a happy coincidence, the requirement for “authority” in s 94(c) resonates with a remark by Roberts CJ in Georgia v Randolph, 547 US 103 (2006) (dissenting, joined by Scalia J): “A warrantless search is reasonable if police obtain the voluntary consent of a person authorized to give it.” But the court’s jurisprudence illustrates how this simple idea has been clogged with legal rules. For example Chief Justice Roberts, in the passage immediately preceding the sentence just quoted, summarised the precedents as including the proposition of law that ” … someone who shares a place with another cannot interpose an objection when that person decides to grant access to the police …”. I would argue that this should not be a proposition of law, but rather it should be a question of fact in each case whether a relevant occupier (the defendant) has given authority to another occupier to give consent to the search that actually occurred.

In Fernandez there was no such consent and the absence of the defendant, who was in police custody, did not  result in him constructively giving his authority to consent to the co-tenant, and obviously, as there was then no urgency, the police should have obtained a warrant; the search was illegal and the admissibility of the seized evidence should be determined taking that illegality into account.

Evaluating opinions

R v Sekhon, 2014 SCC 15 (20 February 2014) is interesting on when an expert’s opinion has no probative value, and on the appellate court’s approach to assessing the inevitability of a guilty verdict.

An expert witness said that in his extensive experience drug couriers always know that they are in possession of a drug. They are not “blind” couriers. The material issue was the defendant’s knowledge of the presence of a drug in the vehicle he drove at the Canadian border.

The expert’s evidence here cannot readily be reduced to the necessary logical proposition that constitutes the likelihood ratio that expresses probative value.

To determine probative value it is necessary to know whether the evidence is more consistent with the defendant’s guilt than with the defendant’s innocence.

At first blush it seems that this evidence is indeed of that kind: it carries the implication that the defendant must have known of the presence of the drug. But that, without more, is fallacious, for it is simply saying that other defendants in other cases have known of the presence of the drug, so this defendant must have known too.

To determine whether the evidence is more consistent with the defendant’s guilt than with the defendant’s innocence, one asks how likely it is to have been obtained on the assumption that the defendant is guilty, compared to how likely it is to have been obtained on the assumption that the defendant is innocent.

Here the expert’s opinion doesn’t fit into that formula. If the opinion comes down to saying “the defendant knew the drug was present”, it is conclusory not probative.

This sort of analysis is important, for at trial there was no objection to the evidence being given. Not only did counsel not object to it, but at this judge-alone trial the judge accepted it, and the British Columbia Court of Appeal majority (Newbury JA dissenting) also thought it was admissible. But all the Supreme Court judges in Sekhon held that the expert’s opinion was not admissible [49] – [50], [61], [75] – [76], [79] – [80].

The other interesting aspect of Sekhon is the split in the Supreme Court over whether this was a case in which the conviction could be upheld by application of the proviso. This sort of split arises from different evaluations of the strength of the prosecution case as it would have been if the inadmissible evidence hadn’t been given. Here the trial judge gave a reasoned decision, so it should have been relatively easy to evaluate the strength of the case without the impugned evidence. Jury trial convictions are, broadly speaking, more easily overturned when inadmissible evidence was led at trial, because the appellate court cannot examine the reasoning of the jury and there are more live possibilities for how the reasoning may have proceeded in the absence of the error. Differences in appellate perceptions of the significance of such errors at trial point to a weakness in the criteria for deciding conviction appeals.

The Canadian slant on trial fairness and the stay of proceedings

When prosecution misconduct imperils the fairness of a trial, and no other remedy can be found to eliminate any real risk that the trial will be unfair, it is the duty of the judge to stay the proceedings.

This is a corollary of the defendant’s absolute right to a fair trial. If there is a real risk that the trial will be unfair, there is no next-step of balancing the public interest in proceeding against the defendant’s interest in trial fairness.

There are two sorts of relevant prejudice that can arise from the misconduct of officials. In Canada they are described as follows. The first, the main category, is prejudice to the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The second or residual category is prejudice to the integrity of the judicial process, and here it is necessary for the judge to consider whether allowing the proceedings to continue would lend judicial condonation to the impugned conduct.

One may wonder whether the Supreme Court of Canada thinks that the defendant’s right to a fair trial is an absolute right (and see R v NS, discussed here on 20 December 2012). In an obiter error it has said that, if it is uncertain that a stay of proceedings is warranted as a response to prejudice to trial fairness that cannot be remedied in any other way, the judge must balance the interests of the defendant against the interests of society in proceeding with the prosecution: R v Babos, 2014 SCC 16 (21 February 2014), at [32] – [33] (and subject to [40] quoted below), purporting to follow R v Regan, 2002 SCC 12 (14 February 2002) at [54], [57].

I say “error” and “purporting” because in Regan, where the Court split 5 – 4 on the facts, the majority attached the balancing exercise as a final consideration in relation to prejudice in the “residual” category, that is, the category that does not include trial unfairness. No balancing was required in relation to the main category, trial unfairness. That was a correct application of Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Tobiass, 1997 CanLII 322 (SCC) at [91] – [92], which plainly concerned the residual category of occasions where impropriety by officials may give rise to prejudice to the integrity of the judicial process. There was no authority for applying balancing to the main, trial fairness, category of prejudice.

This point could be overlooked, for the majority in Babos said at [40]:

” … When the main category [trial fairness] is invoked, it will often be clear by the time the balancing stage has been reached that trial fairness has not been prejudiced or, if it has, that another remedy short of a stay is available to address the concern. In those cases, no balancing is required. In rare cases, it will be evident that state conduct has permanently prevented a fair trial from taking place. In these “clearest of cases”, the third and final balancing step will often add little to the inquiry, as society has no interest in unfair trials.”

Requiring the “clearest of cases” before dispensing with the balancing exercise is hardly a protection of the defendant against a real risk of an unfair trial. The embarrassment could be avoided if one were to pretend that a “real risk” is the same thing as “the clearest of cases”. But it isn’t. Does society have an interest in proceeding with trials that may well be unfair, and only staying those which must be unfair?

In Babos Abella J dissented on the assessment of the prejudice to the integrity of the judicial process in this case. She did not mention the trial fairness category of prejudice.

The critical misconduct in Babos was threats by a prosecutor that the defendant would face more charges if a guilty plea was not entered [10], [59] – [71]. The level of residual prejudice that these gave rise to must be assessed in the circumstances of the case. It was significant here that a threat had occurred before the defendant had obtained sufficient disclosure to make an informed decision as to plea. Even so, there were circumstances that reduced the prejudice, and on balance the majority concluded that a stay was not warranted.

Two occasions for caution: dock identification, and witnesses who may have an improper motive

Where a witness has had an opportunity at an identification parade to identify the defendant but has failed to do so, the prosecutor should not invite the witness to identify the defendant in the dock at trial, and should be at pains to avoid a dock identification: Lawrence v The Queen (Jamaica) [2014] UKPC 2 (11 February 2014) at [11].

The Board summarised its dicta in previous cases on dock identification and the warnings that must be given by a trial judge when they are permitted, applying in particular Holland v HM Advocate [2005] UKPC D1, mentioned here on 26 February 2008 in relation to Pipersburgh v R (Belize) [2008] UKPC 11, and again here on 26 April 2006 in relation to Edwards v R (Jamaica) [2006] UKPC 23.

There is also in Lawrence a summary of the law on when the judge should warn the jury that a witness’s evidence may be tainted by an improper motive. These warnings need to be tailored to the circumstances of the case and the overriding rule is that the defence must be put fairly and adequately [15] – [18].

Provocation and law

For an interesting authoritative – subject to statutory variation – survey of the law of provocation, see Daniel v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2014] UKPC 3 (13 February 2014).

The partial defence of provocation has been repealed in some jurisdictions, including mine, making it difficult for me to get up enthusiasm for a detailed discussion. This mental sluggishness might also be found in students who no longer encounter what was an intellectually stimulating part of the criminal law course. Still, law wasn’t invented to amuse lawyers, was it?

What would be interesting to discover, in places where there is no longer a partial defence of provocation, is whether juries are nevertheless instinctively applying something similar – perhaps a commonsense feeling for justice? – and returning verdicts of guilty of manslaughter instead of murder in cases where the result would have been the same if the law of provocation had applied.

There is, in Daniel, the generally important point that [13], [56] the judge must leave defences to the jury if they are available on the evidence, even if the defendant has not relied on them. See also Holt, discussed here on 21 February 2014.

Harmony was found [33] with the Supreme Court of Canada’s conclusion on self-induced provocation in Cairney v The Queen [2013] SCC 55, mentioned briefly here on 1 November 2013.

Is a partial defence of provocation inconsistent with the so-called felony murder rule whereby a killing in the course of the commission of certain offences is automatically murder regardless of the defendant’s intention? The answer [46] is yes, the felony murder rule (again, in jurisdictions where it or its equivalent applies) makes the defendant’s state of mind irrelevant and there is no room for the defendant to say he acted under provocation.

The Board in Daniel swept away [57] the Camplin rule which had required provocation to be left to a jury if there was evidence of loss of self-control regardless of whether any reasonable jury could possibly find that a reasonable person with the defendant’s characteristics would have responded as the defendant did. In enacting the legislation under which Camplin was decided, “it was not the intention of Parliament to legitimise a perverse verdict.”

This sort of perversity – acquitting where there is insufficient evidence to support a defence – is different from the sort of perversity where the jury recognises a defence which the law has purported to remove. In the latter, the jury is applying social norms that it considers to be morally right. These norms it regards as morally binding and therefore justly applied, although one may doubt whether that is an application of law (see generally, John Gardner, Law as a Leap of Faith, 2012 OUP, reviewed here on 6 July 2013). Arguably it is, because it is permitted by the law; through the concept of reasonableness natural laws are incorporated into positive law.

And what are our fees from crime?

What does a judge need to consider at trial if a defendant’s evidence is not accepted?

“The case in which a defendant advances a defence which may well be disbelieved imposes a particularly acute duty on the trial judge. It is essential that he consider carefully what the position will be if the defendant’s account is indeed rejected. Sometimes the result will be that the only proper verdict will be guilty, and indeed sometimes this may be expressly conceded on the defendant’s behalf. But very often it will be necessary for the jury to be required to apply its mind to the remaining steps to conviction, and it is especially important that it be reminded that it must do so because defence counsel will normally not have addressed other possible obstacles to conviction which are inconsistent with the case being advanced by the defendant in evidence. A simple instance is the defendant accused of murder who advances an alibi which is seriously damaged in cross examination of the several witnesses, but whose actions, assuming that he was indeed the culprit, may not amount to murder, for example because there is a genuine decision to be made about intent. There are many other examples.”

Holt v Her Majesty’s Attorney General on behalf of the Queen (Isle of Man) [2014] UKPC 4 (19 February 2014) at [24]. Compare Huynh v The Queen [2013] HCA 6 discussed here on 15 March 2013 for situations where getting to the real issues in a complex case is appropriate. And on considering defences not expressly relied on, see R v Pickton 2010 SCC 32, discussed here on 6 August 2010.

Holt will be of interest to all lawyers who receive funds or property from clients. A cynic might say that the creation of money laundering and proceeds of crime offences gives the Crown an unfair advantage in the scramble for revenue. But we who take a more balanced view would agree that it would not be possible to prevent offenders from benefiting from their offences if lawyers were exempt from proceeds of crime laws.

In Holt the key issue was whether the defendant, a lawyer, had known or suspected that funds were the proceeds of crime. This requirement of knowing or suspecting is commonly found in proceeds of crime legislation.

“[25] … It would not be necessary for the appellant to know that the law labelled what occurred a crime, still less which crime, if she knew or suspected facts which amounted to a crime of some kind. But it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that she had applied her mind to the circumstances in which the money had been produced. Actual knowledge or suspicion that there was criminal conduct of some kind involved is an essential element of the offence. It was not enough to show that she ought to have realised that some crime, such as theft or obtaining by deception, might well have been involved. Knowledge or suspicion that to receive the money … would be irregular, in the sense of a breach of trust, is not automatically the same as knowledge or suspicion that a crime is involved.”

And in the circumstances here, even agreeing in cross-examination that she knew the money couldn’t have “honestly” been obtained by the client, did not necessarily amount to admitting knowledge of more than an irregularity that was less than a crime. The issue of knowledge or suspicion that the money was proceeds of crime had not been left to the jury in this trial, the defence having been absence of knowledge of the source of the money rather than its quality as proceeds of crime.

“[26] It is no answer to this defect [omission of a direction on the need to prove knowledge or suspicion that the money was proceeds of crime] that the appellant was not advancing this defence, either in her evidence or in counsel’s speech on her behalf. It is precisely because she was advancing a different, and as the jury found untruthful, version of events, that neither she nor counsel did so. It is precisely in these circumstances that the duty falls upon the judge to address the elements of the offence if, as can be seen to be at least possible, the jury rejects her evidence.”

In the circumstances it was not inevitable that the jury would have found the defendant guilty if it had been properly directed, and an acquittal on the main charge could have led to acquittals on other charges. There had also been some unfortunate remarks from the judge (who on the Isle of Man is called the Deemster) which could have given the jury the impression that the judge thought the defendant was guilty. All convictions were quashed, and the question of retrial ([32] “the public interest is most unlikely to call for a re-trial”) reserved for submissions to be made to the Board.

The view from above

Just as cirrocumulus stratiformis clouds are broadly similar to cirrus spissatus undulatus clouds, and most of us don’t really pay much heed to the difference between them, so too is Milne v The Queen [2014] HCA 4 (14 February 2014) broadly similar to Richardson v DPP [2014] UKSC 8, discussed here on 7 February 2014.

Both cases take a purposive interpretation of specific legislation. In Milne an exchange of property with intent to conceal the profit to avoid paying tax did not make the property an “instrument of crime” for the purposes of s 400.3(1) of the Criminal Code (Cth). The property disposed of was not thereafter “used” in the commission of a relevant offence.

Not too far removed from a hypothetical considered in Richardson: the shop’s lawful activity of selling soap would not have been made unlawful if a sales assistant were being paid below the minimum wage.

But we lawyers, whose heads are definitely not in the cirrus, can see the difference as well as the similarity.