Alberta Appeal Court Ruling Likely to Limit Electronic Device Searches at Canadian Border

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Sheldon Canfield (“Canfield”) and Kent Townsend (“Townsend”), both Canadian citizens, were charged with possession of child pornography contrary to section 163.1(4) and with importing child pornography contrary to section 163.1(3) of the Criminal Code.

The criminal charges against both men took place when they re-entered Canada at the Edmonton International Airport in 2014.  Although the charges against the men are unrelated, both men sought an order from the Court under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that the evidence of the search of Canfield’s cell phone and Townsend’s computer by border officers be excluded at their trials. 

Both Canfield and Townsend had their electronic devices searched by border officers and were found to have child pornography in their possession.  They were both arrested, convicted and appealed the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta’s decision not to exclude the evidence obtained during the search of their electronic devices by border officials.  The Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled that the searches by the Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”) officers of the digital devices were unconstitutional as the Customs Act imposes no limits on the search of these types of devices at the border.

THE CRIMINAL CHARGES

At the Canadian border, Canfield was flagged for a secondary screening due to his travel patterns and “overly friendly demeanor” after returning home from Cuba.  During this screening, an officer suspected that Canfield had child pornography on his phone.  Canfield confirmed that he did and showed the officer an image of child pornography on his device. 

Townsend was also arrested after being flagged by border officials when returning home from Seattle.  Townsend was selected for a secondary screening due to his five-month travel pattern, his lack of eye contact with border officials and his lack of employment.  He was also carrying 12 electronic devices.  Child pornography images were found on Townsend’s laptop and he was arrested.

At trial, Canfield and Townsend were convicted of possession of child pornography and importing child pornography.  Canfield was sentenced to 18 months in jail and Townsend was sentenced to two years.

THE APPEAL

At their appeal, it was argued that section 99(1)(a) of the Customs Act (“Act”) was unconstitutional as it permitted unlimited searches of electronic devices at the Canadian border.

Section 99(1)(a) of the Customs Act permits Canada Border Services Agency officers to examine “goods” that have been brought into Canada.  This section has been interpreted to allow CBSA officers to search personal electronic devices without restriction.

The written decision by the three judge panel of the Court of Appeal stated:

While the search of a computer or cellphone is not akin to the seizure of bodily samples or a strip search, it may nevertheless be a significant intrusion on personal privacy.  … To be reasonable such a search must have a threshold requirement.

According to the Court of Appeal, the trial judge failed to assess the application of section 99(1)(a) of the Act considering the developing technology of personal digital devices.

There is no doubt that there have been significant developments in the technology of personal electronic devices and the way they are used by Canadians (since 1988).  Individuals were not travelling and crossing borders with personal computers or cell phones that contained massive amounts of highly personal information.

The Court ruled that the definition of “goods” in the Act is “of no force” when it comes to personal electronic devices.

The Alberta Court of Appeal found that section 99(1)(a) of the Act was unconstitutional as it imposed no limits on searches of electronic devices by CBSA officers at the border.  The Appeal Court ruled that this section will be of no force and effect for one year to allow Parliament the opportunity to amend the Act.

Despite the Appeal Court’s ruling on the constitutional validity of the section, the convictions of Canfield and Townsend were upheld by the Court based upon the finding that the border officers acted in good faith in carrying out the searches and uncovered real evidence of serious offences.  Furthermore, society’s confidence in the justice system was best maintained through the admission of the evidence obtained through the unconstitutional searches. 

The CBSA, in a statement to CBC News, reported that it is currently reviewing the appeal court decision and assessing the next steps.  According to the CBSA:

The CBSA’s policy is to examine a digital device only if there are indicators that evidence of a contravention will be found.  It is important to note that examinations of digital devices are not conducted as a matter of course. …

This is a pretty big change in the law for the 98 million people who come through our Canadian border every year.

We will continue to follow any developments in the law with respect to the limits imposed on officers to search electronic devices at border crossings in Canada and will report them in this blog.

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges that have been laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1047.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting their client’s rights.  For your convenience, we offer a 24-hour telephone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice.