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Certain Privacy for Text Messages – Law Catching up with Technology

Text messages that have been sent and received can, in some cases, attract a reasonable expectation of privacy and therefore can be protected against unreasonable search or seizure under s. 8  of the Charter . Whether a claimant had a reasonable expectation of privacy must be assessed in the totality of the circumstances. To claim s. 8 protection, claimants must establish that they had a direct interest in the subject matter of the search, that they had a subjective expectation of privacy in that subject matter and that their subjective expectation of privacy was objectively reasonable. Only if a claimant’s subjective expectation of privacy was objectively reasonable will the claimant have standing to argue that the search was unreasonable. However, standing is merely the opportunity to argue one’s case. It does not follow that the accused’s argument will succeed, or that the evidence will be found to violate s. 8 .

                    With a text message, the subject matter of the search is the electronic conversation between the sender and the recipient(s). This includes the existence of the conversation, the identities of the participants, the information shared, and any inferences about associations and activities that can be drawn from that information. The subject matter is not the copy of the message stored on the sender’s device, the copy stored on a service provider’s server, or the copy received on the recipient’s device that the police are after; it is the electronic conversation itself, not its components.

                    A number of factors may assist in determining whether it was objectively reasonable to expect privacy in different circumstances, including: (1) the place where the search occurred whether it be a real physical place or a metaphorical chat room; (2) the private nature of the subject matter, that is whether the informational content of the electronic conversation revealed details of the claimant’s lifestyle or information of a biographic nature; and (3) control over the subject matter.

                    Control is not an absolute indicator of a reasonable expectation of privacy, nor is lack of control fatal to a privacy interest. It is only one factor to be considered in the totality of the circumstances. Control must be analyzed in relation to the subject matter of the search, which in this case was an electronic conversation. Individuals exercise meaningful control over the information that they send by text message by making choices about how, when, and to whom they disclose the information. An individual does not lose control over information for the purposes of s. 8  of the Charter  simply because another individual possesses it or can access it. Nor does the risk that a recipient could disclose an electronic conversation negate a reasonable expectation of privacy in an electronic conversation. Therefore, even where an individual does not have exclusive control over his or her personal information, only shared control, he or she may yet reasonably expect that information to remain safe from state scrutiny.

                    In this case, M had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages recovered from W’s iPhone. First, the subject matter of the alleged search was the electronic conversation between M and W, not W’s iPhone, from which the text messages were recovered. Second, M had a direct interest in that subject matter. He was a participant in that electronic conversation and the author of the particular text messages introduced as evidence against him. Third, he subjectively expected the conversation to remain private. M testified that he asked W numerous times to delete the text messages from his iPhone. Fourth, his subjective expectation was objectively reasonable. Each of the three factors relevant to objective reasonableness in this case support this conclusion. If the place of the search is viewed as a private electronic space accessible by only M and W, M’s reasonable expectation of privacy is clear. If the place of the search is viewed as W’s phone, this reduces, but does not negate, M’s expectation of privacy. The mere fact of the electronic conversation between the two men tended to reveal personal information about M’s lifestyle; namely, that he was engaged in a criminal enterprise. In addition, M exercised control over the informational content of the electronic conversation and the manner in which information was disclosed. The risk that W could have disclosed it, if he chose to, does not negate the reasonableness of M’s expectation of privacy. Therefore, M has standing to challenge the search and the admission of the evidence of the text messages recovered from W’s iPhone. This conclusion is not displaced by policy concerns. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the justice system cannot adapt to the challenges of recognizing that some electronic conversations may engage s. 8  of the Charter . Moreover, different facts may well lead to a different result.

                    The Crown concedes that if M had standing the search was unreasonable. The text messagesare thus presumptively inadmissible against him, subject to s. 24(2)  of the Charter . In considering whether this evidence should be excluded under s. 24(2) , society’s interest in the adjudication of M’s case on its merits is significant. The text messages offer highly reliable and probative evidence in the prosecution of a serious offence and their exclusion would result in the absence of evidence by which M could be convicted. This favours admission. However, the police conduct in accessing and searching the electronic conversation through W’s iPhone without a warrant two hours after his arrest was sufficiently serious to favour the exclusion of the evidence. This breached s. 8  of the Charter  not only because of the extent of the search, but also because of its timing. On the application judge’s findings, this simply was not a search incident to arrest. In addition, the police conduct had a substantial impact on M’s Charter ‑protected privacy interest in the electronic conversation. On balance, the admission of the evidence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. It must therefore be excluded under s. 24(2) .

                    Without the erroneously admitted evidence obtained from W’s iPhone, M would have been acquitted. He was convicted instead. To allow that conviction to stand would be a miscarriage of justice. Therefore, the curative proviso in s. 686(1) (b)(iii) of the Criminal Code  does not apply.

Source: R. v. Jones (SCC)

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