In R. v. McMahan 2018 SKCA 26, police received a call from the local Mobile Crisis Unit regarding an anonymous tip concerning the well-being of the children living in Ms. McMahon’s residence. Specific concerns identified by the tipster were poor living conditions and children not fed properly. Since the tip had been received by Mobile Crisis on a weekend, and because it had no staff in proximity to McMahon’s home, Mobile Crisis asked the police to “go and just take a look, find out what things were like and report back to them”. Two police officers attended the residence and McMahon greeted them outside. After being informed of the reason for the police visit, McMahon requested a few minutes to clean up the home, but was denied. The officer denied her request, stating it would be inconsistent with the purpose of a “spot check”. The discussion that took place outside McMahon’s home lasted no more than five minutes. McMahon then turned, opened the door, and entered her residence.
The officers followed her inside. Upon entering the home, the police smelled burnt marihuana. One of the officers also observed a jar of marihuana bud and the adults in the home were arrested (McMahon and two others). As there were no adults left to supervise the three children, the police determined that they should be taken into care. While assisting the children in preparing to leave the residence, one of the officers entered a room and noticed a number of marihuana plants. A search warrant was later obtained and 191 marihuana plants were seized pursuant to the warrant. McMahon applied to have the marihuana plants that were seized from her residence excluded from evidence at trial on the grounds that the police had entered her home and seized the plants without lawful authority. The trial judge allowed the application and excluded the evidence. He found that the investigating officer exceeded her powers by entering the home without a warrant and that the subsequent search and seizure of the marihuana plants amounted to a violation of McMahon ‘s s. 8 Charter rights.
The Crown appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred in finding the police had entered the home without lawful authority, erred in finding that McMahon’s privacy rights were engaged, erred in applying the standards applicable to gathering evidence in a criminal investigation to a child welfare inquiry, and erred in excluding the evidence.
Since the Crown principally relied upon the Child and Family Services Act (CFSA) as authority for the warrantless search, this legislation was examined. The legislation’s purpose is to promote the well-being of children “in need of protection” by offering services designed to maintain, support and preserve the family in the least disruptive manner. Children are considered to be “in need of protection” if the child’s situation meets one of the circumstances described (s. 11), including a circumstance where “there is no adult person who is able and willing to provide for the child’s needs, and physical or emotional harm to the child has occurred or is likely to occur”. Section 12 of the CFSA legally obliges any person who has reasonable grounds to believe a child is in need of protection to report that information to an officer or a peace officer.
Where a report is made to a child protection worker or peace officer, the recipient of that report must investigate the information set out therein if the child protection worker or peace officer, as the case may be, has reasonable grounds to believe that a child is in need of protection. The CFSA lays out a number of approaches available to child protection workers when a child is considered to be in need of protection. The level of intervention ranges from the least disruptive (support services, mediation, agreements with the parents for residential care), to more interventionist measures (apprehension, protective intervention orders, temporary or permanent guardianship orders).
The CFSA does not expressly authorize a peace officer to enter a private dwelling for the purpose of conducting an investigation; it does set out the authority for and conditions upon which a warrant to enter a private home may be obtained, notably, when an officer has not yet determined if a child is in need of protection and needs access into the home in order to make that determination.
The Crown’s position also, both at trial and on appeal, was that warrantless entry into McMahon’s home was justified under the common law police duty to preserve the peace, prevent crime and protect life and safety. In other words, the police response to the anonymous tip about McMahon’s children engaged a positive obligation on their part to assist McMahon’s children who may have been in distress, even if the extent of their distress was unknown to them at the time they received the tip. The Crown argued the anonymous tip was akin to a 9-1-1 call and therefore constituted sufficient evidence of the reasonableness of the police action. Finally, the Crown suggested that once the common law duty is found to exist, the police are both authorized and duty bound to enter a private dwelling without a warrant in furtherance of their power, without considering whether entry was reasonably necessary in the circumstances.
The SKCA found the warrantless entry was not justified by child welfare concerns in the absence of exigent circumstances. The testimony of the officer at trial did not satisfy the trial judge that she believed the life or safety of the children were in danger; she only had a vague, anonymous tip that the children were not being properly fed and the house was in poor condition. As such, the officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe that the children were in need of protection. There was no direct evidence that the children were in distress. The anonymous tip, which was received second hand and came from an unknown source, was vague and not compelling or credible. The warrantless entry was without McMahon’s informed consent. McMahon was not advised of her right to refuse police entry or of the ability of the police to get a warrant under the Child and Family Services Act. No matter how well intentioned the officer was, the warrantless, non-consensual, non-urgent search of her home was a serious violation of her s. 8 Charter rights.
Of note, even though the legal basis (principles) discussed in this decision appear sound, your provincial legislation may grant or authorize other powers that the CFSA in Saskatchewan does not, so please refer to the relevant legislation in your territorial jurisdiction for guidance.