Monday, April 28, 2008

What a cute doggie!

In R v Kang-Brown [2008] SCC 18 (25 April 2008) the accused got off a bus and his behaviour caused an undercover police officer to suspect that he might have drugs in a bag he was carrying. There were no reasonable grounds to search him. The officer got him into conversation, then identified himself and asked if he would consent to a search of the bag. An initial appearance of consent changed when the officer went to reach into the bag, and Mr Kang-Brown pulled the bag away. The officer, as a result of this withdrawal of consent, called over a dog handler, and the dog indicated the presence of drugs in the bag. Seventeen ounces (0.476 kg) of cocaine was in the bag, and Mr Kang-Brown was charged with possession of it for trafficking.

Of course, one can summarise the facts of a case in various ways. There is a risk in casting them in the wrong light and departing from the findings in the court where they were determined (see per Bastarache J, dissenting at 202).

But the essentials are that there were no sufficient grounds for a lawful search at the time the decision was made to call the dog handler.

Some of the Judges in the Supreme Court of Canada wanted to change the law so that the grounds for a search in these circumstances would more easily exist. This was because the focus of the case was seen as the use of the sniffer dog (whose name is Chevy).

It is not inevitable that that should have been the focus of the case. There were elements of illegality to the search before the dog was involved: the absence of grounds and the (albeit brief) detention while the dog was brought over and put to work. In terms of the right not to be subjected to unreasonable search, this did amount to a breach. One would expect that to bring into play the balancing exercise necessary to determine the admissibility of the evidence. Surprisingly, the evidence of this relatively (compared to the breach of rights) serious offence was excluded by the majority McLachlin CJ, Binnie, LeBel, Fish, Abella and Charron JJ.

It is no surprise, given the nature of law, that this mundane incident, with its trivial breach of rights, was worked up into a huge legal controversy about the use of sniffer dogs in public places. The focus became the common law legality of search by sniffer dogs: should the Court decide this before Parliament does, and, if so, what grounds would make such searches lawful? Plainly, reasonable grounds to believe would be too high, as the use of the dog would be rendered superfluous and the search by the enforcement officer could proceed. Mere suspicion may seem too low, once one has decided (as all Judges here did) that the dog’s action in sniffing does amount to a search, although Bastarache J was prepared to come close to this with his proposal of a generalised suspicion as sufficient grounds. The solution, reasonable suspicion, was favoured by McLachlin CJ, Binnie, Deschamps and Rothstein JJ. This did not appeal to the other four judges (LeBel, giving the reasons of himself and Fish, Abella and Charron JJ), who did not think it appropriate to downgrade the reasonable and probable cause requirement (para 16).

The difficulties arise once one says that the use of the dog was a search. On the facts here it clearly was, because it was focused on the contents of a particular bag that, in effect, the police had seized. But it does not follow that routine sniffing around people at a transport hub amounts to search. Most people would think it was rather cute.

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