Canada’s Supreme Court just made it harder for police to search your house without a warrant
In a new landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada has issued a new warning to police forces across the country: You need a warrant to search someone’s house.
It may seem obvious, but in one case from British Columbia, government lawyers contended that a warrantless search of one man’s apartment was perfectly legal.
The majority of Canada’s top court disagreed, registering a win for Canadians’ privacy rights.
“The presumptive unreasonableness of warrantless searches, and the high privacy interest attaching to a person’s residence have long been fundamental to our understanding of the proper relationship between citizen and state,” the majority of the court wrote, as it threw out a trove of evidence obtained by the B.C. RCMP, and allowed an appeal in the case.
The case dates back to 2007, when three RCMP officers responded to a 911 call from a woman who told the operator she’d be injured. When police arrived, the woman’s mother directed the cops to her boyfriend’s apartment.
After they questioned the man about his girlfriend’s injury, and decided there was no pressing matter — she had gone to the hospital — they began to inquire about the smell of marijuana coming from his apartment. After some back-and-forth, he confessed that he had a few roaches in the apartment. The police said they would seize the mostly-smoked joints, but wouldn’t press charges.
As the man went to get the roaches, however, one officer pushed his way into the apartment, and one of his partners followed. Inside, they found bags full of pills, four loaded weapons, and a variety of other drugs and illegal items. The RCMP officers returned to the detachment to obtain a warrant, and then returned to the apartment to seize all the goods.
The man was convicted of nine drug and weapons charges. A Court of Appeal later upheld the conviction and refused to throw out the evidence, even as the man and his lawyer argued that it was all obtained under an illegal search. Crown lawyers successfully argued that “exigent circumstances” applied here — that it would have been impossible for the police to get a warrant at that moment, that waiting for a warrant could have put their lives in danger, and that he may have destroyed the evidence in the time it took to get a warrant.
The Supreme Court admitted that the case was a “close call” but ultimately decided that no, the police can’t search your apartment without a warrant, even if it is “inconvenient or impractical” to get a warrant.
“In this case, the police had a practicable option: To arrest the appellant and obtain a warrant to enter the residence and seize the roaches,” the court wrote in its decision. “If, as the Crown says, the situation was not serious enough to arrest and apply for a warrant, then it cannot have been serious enough to intrude into a private residence without a warrant.”
Cover: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press