It appears this is the first time that the Supreme Court of Canada has pointedly considered the search incident to arrest power applied inside a home. In R. v. Stairs 2022 SCC 11, a call was placed to 9-1-1 to report a man repeatedly hitting a woman in a car. Police officers located the car parked in the driveway of a house. They knocked on the front door and loudly announced their presence, but no one answered. Fearing for the woman’s safety, they entered the house. A woman with fresh injuries to her face came up a flight of stairs leading from the basement. The accused then ran past the bottom of the staircase and barricaded himself in the basement laundry room, where he was arrested a short time later. After the arrest, the police conducted a visual clearing search of the basement living room area, from which the accused and the woman had just emerged. During the search, the police saw a clear container and a plastic bag in plain view containing methamphetamine (over 90 grams). The accused was charged with possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking, assault, and breach of probation.
The accused brought a pre-trial application alleging, among other things, violations of his right against unreasonable search and seizure protected by s. 8 of the Charter. The trial judge found no breach of s. 8 and no basis to exclude the methamphetamine. She held that it was reasonable for the officers to do a quick scan of the basement living room after the accused was arrested, that the search had a valid objective, and that the search and resulting seizure were lawful. The accused was convicted of all charges. He appealed his conviction for the drug offence on the basis that the drug evidence was improperly admitted. A majority of the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, holding that the search and subsequent seizure of the methamphetamine did not breach the accused’s s. 8 Charter rights. The majority was of the view that the search was a search incident to a lawful arrest, that the common law standard for search incident to arrest applied, and that the search of the basement living room met this standard. The accused’s appeal was dismissed by a 5-4 SCC majority on the reasonable suspicion standard for searches incident to arrest inside a home.
The SCC discussed that the baseline common law standard for search incident to arrest requires that the individual searched has been lawfully arrested, that the search is truly incidental to the arrest in the sense that it is for a valid law enforcement purpose connected to the arrest, and that the search is conducted reasonably (R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77,  3 S.C.R. 621, at paras. 21 and 27). In the past, the SCC has tailored this standard in several contexts to comply with s. 8 of the Charter. The search incident to arrest power has been eliminated for the seizure of bodily samples (R. v. Stillman,  1 S.C.R. 607), and the standard has been modified in other situations presenting a heightened privacy interest in the subject matter of the search, such as strip searches, penile swabs, and cell phone searches (R. v. Golden, 2001 SCC 83,  3 S.C.R. 679; R. v. Saeed, 2016 SCC 24,  1 S.C.R. 518; Fearon).
In the present case, the appeal to the SCC raised two issues: (1) whether the search of the basement living room incident to arrest was unreasonable, contrary to s. 8 of the Charter; and (2) if so, whether the methamphetamine seized by the police should be excluded under s. 24(2) of the Charter. This post will focus on the 1st issue.
In short, the SCC has enunciated a two-part analytical approach for determining whether the common law standard for search incident to arrest should be modified to comply with s. 8 of the Charter …:
(1) Stage One: Determine whether the search satisfies the common law standard for search incident to arrest.
(2) Stage Two: If so, determine whether the standard must be modified to comply with s. 8 of the Charter, given the particular privacy interests and law enforcement objectives at stake.
The SCC said that the common law standard of search incident to arrest should be modified — and made stricter — to reflect an accused’s heightened privacy interest in their home, depending on whether the area searched is within or outside the physical control of the arrested person. Where the area searched is within the arrested person’s physical control, the common law standard continues to apply. However, where the area is outside their physical control, but it is still sufficiently proximate to the arrest, a search of a home incident to arrest for safety purposes will be valid only if:
- the police have reason to suspect that there is a safety risk to the police, the accused, or the public which would be addressed by a search; and
- the search is conducted in a reasonable manner, tailored to the heightened privacy interests in a home (as a general rule, the police cannot use the search incident to arrest power to justify searching every nook and cranny of the house. A search incident to arrest remains an exception to the general rule that a warrant is required to justify intrusion into the home. The search should be no more intrusive than is necessary to resolve the police’s reasonable suspicion. Further, it would be good practice for the police to take detailed notes after searching a home incident to arrest. They should keep track of the places searched, the extent of the search, the time of the search, its purpose, and its duration).
In Stairs, the dynamic before and during the arrest and the nature of the offence for which the accused was arrested were factors that figured prominently in the reason-to-suspect analysis. The situation was volatile and rapidly changing, and the arrest was for domestic assault. In domestic violence cases, the police are not only concerned with the privacy and autonomy of the person arrested; they must also be alert to the safety of all members of the household, including both known and potential victims, said the majority. In addition, the search was conducted reasonably. It took place right after the arrest and the police merely conducted a visual scan of the living room area to ensure that no one else was present and that there were no weapons or hazards. The spatial scope of the search was appropriate: the living room was part of the surrounding area of the arrest, it appeared to be a common living room space, and the police engaged in the most cursory of searches, which was the least invasive possible. The search of the living room incident to arrest did not violate the accused’s s. 8 Charter right, and the evidence from the living room search was therefore properly admitted at trial because.
Given the factual matrix of this case, the SCC mentioned that it was not necessary to decide whether reasonable suspicion also applies to investigation-related purposes, such as evidence preservation and evidence discovery. They left that issue for another day.