Can an assistance order under Section 487.02 of the Criminal Code be used to compel an arrestee to unlock their cell phone so that the police can search it?

A judge with the Ontario Court of Justice ruled it can’t.  In R. v. Shergill 2019 ONCJ 54, he was charged with a variety of sexual and child pornography offences in relation to his alleged interaction with a 15-year-old girl. Police seized his smart phone, a Blackberry Priv, incident to arrest. They then obtained a search warrant under s. 487 of the Criminal Code to search the contents of the device, but were unable to execute that warrant because the device was password-protected. Police applied for an assistance order because police argued that currently no technology would allow them to access the contents without risking their destruction. As a result, the police saught a further s. 487 warrant with an assistance order, which if granted, would compel Shergill to unlock the device so that the police could search it.

Shergill argued that the order would be constitutionally prohibited because it would compel him to communicate to the police information currently existing only in his mind for the purpose of assisting them in obtaining potentially incriminating evidence against him. That compulsion, he argued, would be a breach of his s. 7 liberty interests and would not be in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. Compelling him to participate in his own investigation by revealing information known only to him would violate his right to silence and the protection against self-incrimination, both of which are principles of fundamental justice. In short, Shergill argued that a court order requiring him to communicate his thoughts for the sole purpose of providing access to evidence which may be used to send him to jail would be an unprecedented and unconstitutional use of the assistance order power.

The judge agreed with Shergill.  While the judge accepted that the current digital landscape as it relates to effective law enforcement and the protection of privacy presents many challenges, on his best application of controlling authority, he was simply not persuaded that the order sought can issue without fundamentally breaching Shergill’s s. 7 liberty interests, a breach which would not be in accordance with the principle of fundamental justice which says that he has the right to remain silent in the investigative context. The judge felt that the data on the Blackberry, which the police are only able to access and obtain if Shergill provided his password, is derivative evidence (basically, evidence which comes to light as a result of a compelled disclosure) and must be protected by derivative use immunity in order for the proposed assistance order not to fall foul of section 7 of the Charter.

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