May 26, 2020

PEICA finds no "search" in interviewing a hacker informant

R. v Molyneaux, 2020 PECA 2 (CanLII)

The headline is sensational, but it aptly describes the issue that the Prince Edward Island Court of Appeal recently addressed in R v Molyneaux. The Court held that the police did not conduct a search (governed by section 8 of the Charter) by interviewing an informant about what she saw when she surreptitiously viewed the accused’s phone.

The police charged the accused with child pornography offences. There was a separate dispute about the seizure of images from the accused’s phone, but the Court of Appeal dealt with the informant’s statement alone. The informant attended the police station for an interview, and told the police that she had viewed numerous pornographic pictures of her child when browsing the accused’s phone. The defence argued that the police conducted a search into the phone by conducting this interview. It relied, in part, on cases that have precluded the police from obtaining private information from commercial actors – namely, R. v. Spencer, 2014 SCC 43 and R. v. Orlandis-Habsburgo, 2017 ONCA 649.

The Court rejected the defence argument, explaining:

Society’s conception of the proper relationship between the investigative branches of the state and the individual surely must allow the police to speak to a witness without prior judicial authorization.

I do not believe that the subject matter of the “search” was Molyneaux’s cell phone or the contents thereof. The police were seeking information that might reveal whether or not a crime occurred, and if so, whether or not they should pursue further investigation. The subject of the search was K.’s memory of what she saw the morning of December 31, 2017.

The Court distinguished Spencer and Orlandis-Habsburgo as involving matters arising out of the commercial context, in which expectations differ.