Monthly Archives: September 2017

Investigative detention and searching a vehicle

R. v. Lee 2017 ONCA 654 – officers on general patrol in their scout car. At 8:23:10 p.m. they received a call from dispatch that there was a male of Asian descent possibly armed with a gun in the parking lot near the liquor store. This was the dispatch information (computer):

WL2 SCARBOROUGH WIND-MOBILE ADDRESS AVAILABLE BY THE LIQUOR STORE IN A WHITE VEH -BKND714 [the licence plate number]

COMP SAYS HE SAW A LARGE BAG

IT WAS IN THE TRUNK OPEN

COMP BELIEVES HE SAW A GUN – 1M/A.SIAN-30-40’S

COMP SAYS HE JUST DROVE BY A CAR AND BELIEVES HE SAW A GUN

THINKS THIS MALE IS DEALING DRUGS

COMP IS IN A CAR AND DROVE BY THE SUSP VEH-ITS DARK INSIDE THE CAR AND BELIEVES HE SAW IT IN THE MALE’S POCKET

SAYS THE MALE WAS BY HIMSELF AND IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

VEH COMES BACK AS RENTAL CAR

TRIED TO FIND OUT HOW HE SAW THE GUN IN THE DARK DRIVING BY-CHANGES HIS MIND

BELIEVES HE SAW IT

MALE ALSO HAS A BRN HAT ON

COMP COULD NOT EXPLAIN/CLARIFY EXACTLY WHERE THE GUN MAY BE

The officers then received oral information from dispatch that the vehicle was a white four-door 2009 Toyota. They drove to the liquor store, arriving at 8:24:53, but did not see the vehicle. They exited the parking lot and drove along a nearby road where, a few minutes later, they saw a vehicle pulled over with the engine running matching dispatch’s description of the car and the licence plate. The car had a single male occupant — the appellant — who was Asian and wearing a brown hat. The officers stopped behind the vehicle.

The officers approached the appellant, ordered him to show his hands, opened the car door, and removed him from the driver’s seat. One officer told the appellant he was under investigative detention following the 911 gun call. The appellant looked shocked and said, “No! No!”, in response to mention of the word “gun”. The officer did not immediately inform the appellant of his right to counsel. He did a pat-down search for weapons and found none. The appellant was detained but not handcuffed. The second officer performed a search of the passenger cabin of the appellant’s vehicle and did not find a gun.

A sergeant, who had also heard the 911 gun call, arrived shortly after the responding officers, with two other officers. An officer pushed the button releasing the latch to open the trunk of the appellant’s vehicle. A duffle bag came into view once the trunk was open. The sergeant lifted the bag and found it heavy. Thinking there could be guns inside, he unzipped it. The bag contained 23 kilograms of cocaine. No gun was located.

The investigative detention lasted three minutes. By 8:39 p.m., the appellant was arrested for possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking. At that time, he was informed of his right to counsel. The next day, the police obtained a search warrant to search the appellant’s vehicle and to seize the duffle bag and cocaine.

The trial judge concluded that the search was reasonable and that, in any event, the evidence seized was admissible under s. 24(2).  Two judges of the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed that the police searched the trunk lawfully, while one judge in the Court of Appeal agreed with Lee’s lawyers that this search went too far.

The appellant raised three issues:

  1. Was the search of his trunk authorized by s. 117.02(1) of the Criminal Code?
  2. Was the search of his trunk authorized by the common law?
  3. Should the cocaine be excluded from evidence under s. 24(2) of the Charter?

The ONCA ruled that the police officers all testified that they did not believe they had grounds to obtain a warrant to arrest the appellant at the time of the search, so s. 117.02(1) of the Criminal Code does not apply. Accordingly, s. 117.02(1) did not authorize the search in this case.

Was the search of the trunk authorized at common law? First, a police officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect in all the circumstances that the individual is connected to a particular crime and that such a detention is necessary. Second, the police officer is entitled to search the individual detained for a weapon where the officer has a reasonable belief that his safety “or the safety of others…is at risk”. The decision to search cannot be premised on hunches, mere intuition, or a vague or non-existent concern for safety, rather, the officer, “is required to act on reasonable and specific inferences drawn from the known facts of the situation”. The search must also be confined in scope to an intrusion reasonably designed to locate weapons. Third, the search must be conducted in a reasonable manner. Fourth, the investigative detention should be brief and the individual detained is not obliged to answer questions.

How did the ONCA decide? First, the investigative detention was necessary. Based on the 911 call, “[the officers] were discharging their common law duty to preserve the peace, prevent crime, and protect life and property”. As a result of confirmation of the specific information in the call, description of the car, licence plate, and description of the individual driving it, the police had reasonable grounds to suspect that the appellant was connected to a particular crime, possession of an illegal weapon, a gun, and his investigative detention was necessary.

Second, the police had reasonable grounds to believe that their safety and the safety of the public was engaged and they were entitled to conduct a protective pat-down search of the appellant and in the particular circumstances, they were also entitled to search the cabin of the car.

Third, the appellant did not submit that the manner in which the search was conducted was unreasonable.

Fourth, there was also no issue that the investigative detention was brief. Here, after receiving the 911 call from dispatch at 8:23:10 p.m., the police were at the liquor store parking lot by 8:24:53 p.m., and they located the appellant only a few minutes later. The appellant was under arrest within sixteen minutes from the time of the 911 call.

The trial judge found the officers reasonably believed the person driving the car was probably the person who had closed the trunk. At para. 28 of her reasons she held:

I find that the officers reasonably believed that the person driving the car was probably the person who closed the trunk as there was no other individual involved. I find that they reasonably inferred that there could have been one or more guns in the car and that the gun that the caller believed he saw could have been moved to the pocket of the Asian male from the trunk or from the pocket to the trunk.

Although two of the ONCA judges agreed, at para. 65 of the decision:

Importantly, this decision must not be read as condoning an unlimited search of a car for police or public safety purposes whenever there is an investigative detention. The jurisprudence makes it clear that it is the totality of the circumstances that must be considered in every case. It is a very factually-driven analysis.

The third judge ruled that the search in this case was not authorized by law and therefore infringed the appellant’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. However, the judge agreed with the majority that the evidence obtained from the search should be admitted under s. 24(2) of the Charter. The third judge went further to say that once no weapon was found on the appellant’s person or inside the cabin of his vehicle within his accessible reach, no further immediate safety hazard existed; the appellant had no immediate access to his trunk and had no means to immediately retrieve anything from the trunk or from the luggage in the trunk that could pose such as hazard. …

The take home? Don’t go into the trunk UNLESS you have specific reasons pointing at a live risk to police or the public (and you are able to articulate that). In the specific facts of this case, the importance of preventing serious injury or death to members of the public in not allowing the appellant to drive away until that threat was dispelled clearly outweighed the additional interference with the appellant’s liberty and privacy interests.  The same may not be in the result in our situation; we must tread carefully.

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Filed under Safety Search, Search and Seizure