Privacy and electronic records

At common law a cell phone, seized when a person is arrested, cannot be searched. I say “at common law” because the rule may be modified, subject where relevant to any constitutional constraints, by legislation, which, for example may provide for authorisation of such a search by warrant.

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,”... The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant.”

Riley v California, USSC No 13-132 (25 June 2014), Roberts CJ delivering the opinion of the Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada has similarly recognised the enhanced privacy interests that can be associated with electronic information, holding that a warrantless obtaining of information about a computer user’s name and address, from an internet service provider, was illegal, where the information was used to link that person to particular internet usage: R v Spencer, 2014 SCC 43 (13 June 2014). But here the illegally obtained evidence was admissible because the public interest in obtaining a conviction outweighed the breach of the defendant’s privacy.

A breach-but-admissible result also occurred in R v Cole, 2012 SCC 53, noted here on 9 November 2012.

Activity can be called a search if it involves a breach of a legitimate privacy interest (both Riley and Spencer illustrate this) or if it involves a trespass (there are many illustrations; see for example United States v Jones mentioned briefly here on 31 March 2012).

In Spencer the Court did not assert that there is a right to privacy (anonymity) in relation to online activity, only that there can be such a right [49]. The Court referred to its previous recognition of significant privacy interests in relation to online activity in R v Morelli, 2010 SCC 8 (CanLII), 2010 SCC 8, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 253, at [3], noted here on 23 March 2010, R v Cole above, and R v Vu, 2013 SCC 60 (CanLII), 2013 SCC 60, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 657, at [40]-[45], noted here on 17 November 2013. One might fairly ask whether it is appropriate to make the existence of a right dependent on circumstances. More logically, a right does, or does not, exist, and if it exists, the next question is how it interacts with other rights.

For an example of legislation that modifies the common law on search of electronically stored information, see my comments on Vu. That legislation, which I blush to admit is New Zealand’s, seems to authorise a search of a cell phone in circumstances which include where a person can be searched without warrant, not merely where there are reasonable grounds to believe relevant information will be found, and not on the lesser threshold of reasonable grounds to suspect, but simply on the basis that the information “may” be found.

I do not think that Riley justifies a reading-down of statutory powers of warrantless search in New Zealand. The express power in s 88 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, coupled with the elaboration of the powers in relation to places and vehicles in s 110 and persons in s 125 are not stated to be only exercisable if it is impracticable to obtain a warrant. But the overarching requirement of s 21 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is one of reasonableness, implicitly both as to the decision to exercise the power of warrantless search and to the manner of carrying out the search. An issue of reasonableness will be a case-specific inquiry. It would be wrong to say that a warrantless search of a cell phone or a computer that was in the possession of an arrested person will always be unreasonable.

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Who shall yield? Recovering proceeds of crime from joint offenders.

Forfeiture orders, to recover benefits obtained by crime, may be issued against each participant in the offending for the full amount of the group’s benefit, so that the total of the orders may exceed the total of the benefit obtained: see R v May [2008] UKHL 28, R v Green [2008] UKHL 30, and Crown Prosecution Service v Jennings [2008] UKHL 29 (all 14 May 2008), discussed here on 16 May 2008.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has now held that in such cases each order should be subject to a condition:

” … that it is not to be enforced to the extent that a sum has been recovered by way of satisfaction of another confiscation order made in relation to the same joint benefit.”

R v Ahmad [2014] UKSC 36 (18 June 2014) at [74] (the Court’s emphasis).

This case follows and clarifies the line of authorities beginning with May, Green and Jennings [39].

In particular, “obtained” in this statutory context of obtaining a benefit from offending has its ordinary, non-technical, meaning. It doesn’t depend on legal concepts involving property transfer. It just means to get something. It doesn’t mean to obtain ownership [42].

Where it is alleged that offenders have obtained something “jointly”, that just means they got it together [44], or they got it between them [45]. In this sense, it can be proper for the court to conclude that where offenders obtained something through acting together, they each obtained the whole of that thing [46], at least in the absence of proof to the contrary [47]-[48].

This conclusion should not be reached automatically, for

“[51] … Judges in confiscation proceedings should be ready to investigate and make findings as to whether there were separate obtainings.”

But, especially where it is unlikely that all the offenders have been apprehended, it will often be proper to infer that the obtaining was joint [51].

When the obtaining is, in this sense, joint obtaining, each offender is liable for the full amount of the benefit obtained in the joint offending, and the court will not concern itself with squabbles among offenders as to who should pay what (I paraphrase, but see especially [67]).

This liability is subject to the condition quoted above from [74].

Confiscation proceedings (this is me now, not the Court) can raise complex and interesting questions, as is illustrated by R v Waya [2012] UKSC 51 (14 November 2012), discussed here on 2 January 2013. In Ahmad no question was raised about the majority in Waya‘s method of determining the value of the benefit, so we can take it that Waya‘s authority is undiminished. The market value of what was obtained is determined as at the time of the proceedings for recovery. But this should not be applied too broadly. The statutory context is important, and here the UK legislation was subject to a gloss applied by the European Convention on Human Rights, Protocol 1, Article 1 (“A1P1”), which, as was held in Waya, requires the court to avoid making a disproportionate order. For an illustration, see Paulet v United Kingdom [2013] ECHR 13 May 2014, cited in Ahmad at [77]. One can distinguish a statutory benefit from a real benefit, and resort to the real benefit where confiscation of the statutory benefit would be disproportionate. In jurisdictions not subject to A1P1, statutory limitations on confiscation orders may arise from the need to avoid undue hardship, and one would need to consult the relevant legislation.

People who have to make up problems for students to grapple with may well be thinking along the following lines. If offenders import or manufacture a controlled drug, intending to market it, have they obtained a benefit? Yes, they have got something of value. What value? If the drug was seized by the authorities and thereby forfeited, there was no benefit obtained by the offenders, except in the sense that they had the drug for a period. If they sold the drug, they obtained something of value, and one or more of them may have then bought an investment such as shares or real estate. That value is to be assessed, if Waya is applied, as at the time of the forfeiture proceedings, and it may have diminished since the benefit of the offending was obtained. If another of the offenders used a share of the benefit to make a good investment, there is an inequality, arising probably from mere chance, as between offenders’ loss through enforcement of the forfeiture order. But if there is no evidence of any of that dealing with the immediate proceeds of the drug offending, the court will, applying Ahmad, make an order for equal forfeiture against all offenders, presumably equalling the estimated proceeds of the offending, and ignoring the current value of those proceeds.

Inequities could arise, where orders are made subject to conditions as specified in Ahmad at [74], from the times at which they are enforced. The true benefit may end up being kept by the lucky last, if offenders against whom orders were earlier enforced yielded the full amount. Those earlier enforcements may have been against good investors, whose skill in the markets has protected the share of the offending that can be kept by the others.

And so on. Often the answer, or at least one answer, to these questions will be found in legislation. The legal answer is, as always, able to be evaluated in moral terms. Where there is room to do so, courts should strive to apply legislation in ways that are morally right, and Ahmad illustrates the difficulty of achieving this where constraints on the availability of evidence make fact determination impossible. Some responsibility for the lack of evidence probably rightly rests with the defendant, but where other offenders have not been apprehended and they do not give their account of proceeds, what else can a court do but impose equal liability?

Beyond the law: the kindness of strangers

At common law, once a defendant has been convicted, disclosure obligations change. This is because of the public interest, particularly the interests of victims and witnesses, in the finality of litigation. So a defendant who disputes a conviction has limited rights to disclosure for the purposes of appeal, but even more limited rights – not really rights at all – once usual avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

This is illustrated in Nunn, R (on the application of) v Chief Constable of Suffolk Constabulary [2014] UKSC 37 (18 June 2014), at [23]-[29], [32], [35]. Resources of money and personnel available to the authorities are relevant once criminal proceedings have taken their course:

“[38] It does not, however, follow … that the law ought to impose a general duty on police forces holding archived investigation material to respond to every request for further enquiry which may be made of them on behalf of those who dispute the correctness of their convictions. Indeed, the potential for disruption and for waste of limited public resources would be enormous if that duty were to be accepted. The claimant’s initial requests in the present case for investigation of the finances of the deceased, as well as his earlier applications for sight of the entire investigation files, afford good illustrations of the kind of speculative enquiry which such a rule would encourage. There is no such duty. If the duty of disclosure pending appeal is limited, as it plainly is, to material which can be demonstrated to be relevant to the safety of the conviction, it is all the clearer that after the appellate rights which the system affords are exhausted the continuing obligation cannot be greater than that stated in the Attorney General’s guidelines, read as explained in para 30 above.”

Even the Criminal Cases Review Commission does not indulge in inquiries that are merely speculative [39].

Obviously, not every jurisdiction has a body like the UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission. In any event, once criminal proceedings are over a convicted person who disputes the conviction has a “legitimate interest” in obtaining such proper help as others can be persuaded to give [36]. The burden falls on others, and importantly,

“None of this means that the work of solicitors and others in the interests of convicted persons may not be of great value. There is no doubt that the CCRC is much assisted by informed legal analysis and presentation if an application for review is made to it, and not only because its funding is not unlimited, but also because accurate legal formulation focuses the mind correctly. Sometimes, such solicitors or others can usefully undertake enquiries of their own, respecting of course the interests of third parties. On other occasions they may well, by their arguments and presentations, enlist the co-operation of the police, or the prosecution, or both: Hodgson was just such a case. The police and prosecutors ought to exercise sensible judgment when representations of this kind are made on behalf of convicted persons. If there appears to be a real prospect that further enquiry will uncover something which may affect the safety of the conviction, then there should be co-operation in making it. It is in nobody’s interests to resist all enquiry unless and until the CCRC directs it.”

At this boundary of the law, where no legal rights to action are applicable, a convicted person who has exhausted all legal remedies must rely on (to borrow Tennessee Williams’s phrase) the kindness of strangers.

IQ and intellectual disability

One of the things about the death penalty is that the Supreme Court of the United States has held that no legitimate penological purpose is served by executing the intellectually disabled: Atkins v Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 312 (2002).

So, what does “intellectually disabled” mean? Currently the medical community defines it as the existence of concurrent deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning. The courts regard it as proper to consult the medical community’s opinions when it is necessary to come up with a definition.

In Hall v Florida, USSC No 12-10882, 27 May 2014 the issue was whether interpretation by the Florida Supreme Court of legislation, that could be read consistently with the USSC’s caselaw, was constitutional. The Florida court had held that intellectual disability requires an IQ of 70 or less. Mr Hall scored 71 (although as the USSC dissenters in Hall point out he had actually had several tests in which he scored higher). The case is not concerned with what “adaptive functioning” means, only with what “intellectually” means in the expression “intellectually disabled”.

The majority, Kennedy J, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan JJ, held that the requirement for a score of 70 or under was unconstitutional because it ignored the margin of error inherent in testing. When a score of 70 is within the margin of error, the defendant should pass the first requirement and then have the opportunity to present evidence of lack of adaptive functioning. The decision of the Florida Supreme Court was reversed and the case remanded for determination consistent with the majority’s opinion.

The minority, Alito J, joined by Roberts CJ, Scalia and Thomas JJ, dissented on the grounds that the Florida court’s interpretation was reasonable because it allowed the defendant to present several IQ test scores, and it is known that accuracy increases when more than one test score is considered. The majority’s opinion introduced uncertainty, as to what scores could come within the range that passed the first requirement, and as to how courts should deal with changing medical opinion as to what score indicates intellectual disability. The law should apply society’s standards, not those of a professional body, and the proper focus is on whether the defendant is able to understand the possibility of execution as a penalty notwithstanding diminished ability to comprehend and process information, to learn from experience, to reason logically, or control impulses.

The minority criticised the majority’s method of counting the states when assessing what public opinion regards as appropriate, and pointed out that the majority did not address why Florida’s method of accounting for the risk of test error (by allowing more than one test to be considered) was ineffective.

There is plenty of interesting discussion of IQ testing in this case. The average IQ is 100, a standard deviation is about 15, and two standard deviations below average is taken to be 70, the upper limit for being intellectually disabled (more accurately: the upper limit for meeting the “intellectually” limb of the description “intellectually disabled”). But a test score comes with a range of error, and a person who scores 70 may really have an IQ between 65 and 75, but the range varies according to the range applicable for a given test and the extent to which one wishes to be sure of the result (that is, the degree of confidence). Some tests may carry a lower range of error, so that one could say with a high degree of confidence that a person who scored 70 really had an IQ between, for example, 68 and 72.

An interesting point, from a lawyer’s perspective, was made in the dissent: before this decision, a defendant had to satisfy the court on the balance of probabilities that his IQ was 70 or less. Now, if a defendant may have an IQ in a range that includes 70, he is entitled to go on to produce evidence of his lack of adaptive functioning. The standard of proof is, say the minority, altered.

I note (this is me now, not the Court) that in law we often receive scientific test results without reference to a range of error or a confidence interval. For example, regimes for testing in alcohol-related driving cases usually involve a test result which the defendant can challenge by independent analysis of a blood sample, where one has been taken. It is usual for the prosecutor’s analysis laboratory to knock off a bit of the alcohol result just to be safe, so that even if the final reported level is just over the limit, an independent result would probably be higher. If a defendant facing a penalty for an alcohol-related driving offence has an opportunity to challenge the test result, so should a defendant facing the death penalty. Obviously everyone would agree with that. The analogy suggests that it is not necessary to express an IQ score as being within a range of error or as being within a given confidence interval.

Some test results received by courts, such as DNA results, are stated in probabilistic terms, and rightly so. If one were to require a probabilistic report of an IQ test score, one would look for some statistic such as a likelihood ratio: the probability of getting this score, given that that was the defendant’s IQ, compared to the probability of getting that score, given that that was not his IQ. But I suspect that the confidence interval says the same thing, and the question becomes, do courts really need that extra information?

If the reasoning of the majority in Hall were to be applied to evidence of the result of a blood test for alcohol, the effect would be to remove the legal limit. If, as I do, you instinctively side with the majority in cases like Hall, you still have to deal with the logic of the dissent. Instead of ignoring it, like the majority here, you could accept that sometimes in law logic is trumped by experience, and do as the Privy Council majority did in Ramdeen v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) noted here on 28 March 2014.

The prosecutor’s discretion

Judicial interference with decisions about what submissions a party to litigation should make will occur only rarely, to prevent an abuse of process: R v Anderson, 2014 SCC 41 (6 June 2014).

Here the issue was whether the court should review a prosecutor’s decision to seek a minimum penalty for a repeat offender on sentence for an alcohol related driving offence.The Supreme Court of Canada, in a judgment delivered by Moldaver J, recognised that the legislation made this a matter within the prosecutor’s discretion, and held [31]-[32], [35] that judicial review of the exercise of a prosecutor’s discretion is generally undesirable and would only be appropriate to prevent an abuse of process.

Prosecutorial discretion must be exercised independently of political or judicial interference [37]. Examples of discretionary matters are: whether to bring the prosecution of a charge laid by police, whether to enter a stay of proceedings in either a private or public prosecution, whether to accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge, whether to withdraw from criminal proceedings altogether, whether to take control of a private prosecution [40], whether to repudiate a plea agreement, whether to pursue a dangerous offender application, whether to charge multiple offences, whether to negotiate a plea, and whether to initiate an appeal [44].

These are only reviewable if there would be an abuse of process, that is, where there had been a flagrant impropriety, improper motives or bad faith, where the decision undermined the integrity of the judicial process, or where it would result in an unfair trial [49]-[51].

Judicial intervention can occur in the absence of abuse of process, where the conduct of a party interferes with the orderly and effective functioning of the court [58], but the conduct of litigants or counsel is to be distinguished from the conduct of litigation [59]. Tactical decisions about how a party will present its case will be deferred to by judges unless the situation is exceptional or trial fairness requires intervention.

Where official guidelines for prosecutors have been issued, although they may not have the force of law, a breach can indicate when the court should give weight to a defendant’s claim that a prosecutorial decision would give rise to an abuse of process [56].

See also: New Zealand Law Commission, Criminal Prosecution (NZLC R66, 2000) at [61]-[66], A v R [2012] EWCA Crim 434 at [83], R v DPP ex parte Kebilene [2000] 2 AC 326 at 371, Likiardopoulos v R [2012] HCA 37 per French CJ at [1]-[5].

A particularly important prosecutorial decision is, especially in cases of high public interest, a decision not to prosecute. Judicial review has a role here, especially where there is no practical means of private prosecution. But again, a plaintiff would have to demonstrate that the prosecutor, in deciding not to prosecute, considered an irrelevant matter, or failed to consider a relevant matter, or was wrong in law, or was plainly wrong. And even if the plaintiff could show that the prosecutor had failed to consider a relevant matter, or had considered an irrelevant matter, or had made an error of law (for example by being wrong about the legal elements of the alleged offence), the plaintiff will further have to satisfy the court that if the error had not been made the prosecutor could have decided to prosecute. Even then, the reviewing court could simply refer the issue back to the prosecutor for reconsideration.

The trial process provides protection against wrong decisions to prosecute, but there is little real and practical protection against decisions not to prosecute.