An RCMP search of a Langley grow-op nearly six years ago has turned into a potentially precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada case that will decide how much freedom police have to rummage through computers and smart phones.
On Wednesday (March 27), the high court was scheduled to hear arguments in the case of Thanh Long Vu, the owner of an 84 Avenue property that was raided by the Langley RCMP drug section on Sept. 6, 2007.
Officers investigating an alleged theft of electricity seized a cellphone and two computers, a desktop and a laptop, when they executed a search warrant for what turned out to be a large marijuana growing operation with more than 1,000 plants in the basement.
Mounties found evidence in the computers and cellphone connecting Vu to the grow operation, including security video recordings on the desktop that showed a Honda CRV registered to Vu coming and going from the house, a resume in his name on the laptop and photograph of Vu on the cell phone.
During his trial, a B.C. Supreme Court judge threw out the evidence from the cell phone and portable computer, saying the warrant authorizing a police search of the premises should have specifically included a reference to “electronic documents.”
The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the ruling and ordered a new trial.
Vu then appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
In their written arguments, his lawyers argued that there must be limits to the power of police to comb through computers.
“Computers, with their vast reservoirs of intensely private, “core” information, are not at all like drawers in a desk, filing cabinets or briefcases,” the filing reads.
“They are computers.”
At the Ottawa hearing, the Attorneys Generals of Ontario and Alberta, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) were all expected to make submissions.
The BCCLA argues applying the ordinary rules of search and seizure to new technologies will greatly expand police search power and chip away at privacy rights.
A warrant must specifically authorize a computer search for the search to be lawful, BCCLA lawyers Gerald Chan and Nader Hasan say.
Lawyers for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada were expected to argue any warrant that allows officers to search for “documents” implicitly allows a search of files in computers and cellphones.