Know the lawful limits of your authority.

R. v. Noftall 2016 NLCA 48 – officers assist other agencies on a regular basis and oftentimes enter private property under the authority of that agencies mandate (legislative authority). If we are assisting animal control officers, social workers, etc. and doing so under their legislation, as officers we are expected to know and abide by our lawful limits within that legislation.

A social worker with the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services in Fortune, NL, received a telephone call reporting that a child about one year of age may be in need of protective intervention. The social worker knew the caller but did not know either Noftall or his partner, the child’s mother. The caller reported that “there was information in the community” that Noftall and his partner had a grow-op in their home from which illegal drugs were being sold. The social worker contacted her supervisor and it was decided that the report should be investigated without delay. Before approaching the Noftall house, the social worker contacted the RCMP and requested that a police officer accompany her and her colleague, also a social worker, for the investigation. The officer testified that he went with the social workers, not because of the allegations, but to ensure their safety as they investigated the referral that there was a child in the house who might be at risk of harm.

Like most provinces, NL has legislation which provides for investigation of a report of a child in need of protective intervention and the agency can request the assistance of a peace officer (in this case, the RCMP legislation provided for preservation of the peace under section 18(a) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, RSC 1985, c. R-10). Any officer assisting must know their lawful authority and limits under the specific legislation for their territorial jurisdiction.

Both the social workers and the officer smelled a strong odour of marihuana when they entered the house. The social worker, accompanied by the officer, proceeded to search the house after the social worker indicated to Noftall that she did not require a search warrant. Noftall showed the social worker and the police officer to the bedroom where the social worker saw six tubs in a closet in one of the bedrooms containing plants. Noftall was arrested for growing marihuana. Police then obtained a search warrant and seized the marihuana plants and related paraphernalia. The trial judge found that because the officer merely accompanied the social workers for their protection, the officer did not breach s. 8 of the Charter.  The NLCA disagreed.

The officer knew that the social workers were investigating a report that a child may be in need of protective intervention based on the presence of a marihuana grow-op and drug trafficking from the child’s home. Upon entering the house, the officer detected a smell, indicating to him the presence of growing marihuana. The trial judge accepted that this officer was competent, from his experience and training, to distinguish the smell of growing marihuana from that of dry or burnt marihuana.

According to the NLCA, when he smelled the marihuana, the officer had two separate mandates: that is, securing the safety of the social workers, and investigating a possible offence. He could not use the former to clothe the latter with authority that would otherwise result in a breach of Noftall’s rights under section 8 of the Charter. In order to avoid this conundrum, the officer could have taken the following approach, said the court. When he smelled the marihuana which he identified as “growing”, he could, as he did, have given this information to Noftall, the child’s mother, and the social workers. At that point, he could have proceeded in a manner that would have been consistent with both his mandates by asking all present to remain in the kitchen while he took action to obtain a search warrant. A warrant, which may be requested by telephone, would have provided authorization for a search under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act consistent with Noftall’s rights under section 8 of the Charter (as a side note to junior officers reading this, although many ITOs have to be submitted in writing, 11(2) of the CDSA allows for an application via telephone – oral application).

The appeal court noted in passing that Noftall’s conduct could not be construed as informed consent to the search for purposes of grounding a charge under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. He showed a social worker and the officer to the location of the marihuana plants in reliance on the social worker’s representation that a search warrant was not required. The court also noted further that a request by the officer that Noftall remain in the kitchen with him would constitute an investigative detention, engaging the relevant law. It was unnecessary to consider the issue in this case since that was not the approach taken by the officer.

In the circumstances, the police officer’s failure to obtain a warrant prior to a search for the location of the marihuana plants resulted in a breach of Noftall’s rights under section 8 of the Charter for purposes of investigating an offence and laying a charge under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The trial judge erred in concluding that the officer’s involvement in the social worker’s investigation under the Act allowed him to search Noftall’s residence and to lay a charge when he was led to the location of the plants which, together with the firearm, were then in plain view.

Despite the violation, following the Grant analysis, the evidence was admitted and the conviction held by the NLCA.

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Filed under Recent Case Law, Search and Seizure

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