exclusion of evidence

Errors by Police Officer and Trial Judge Leads to Appeal Court Overturning Child Pornography Conviction

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

In a recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal, a man convicted on pornography charges had evidence obtained in accordance with a production order and search warrant excluded resulting in his acquittal on all counts.

Former Hamilton minor hockey coach, Steven West (“West”), was charged in 2017 with accessing, possession of, and making child pornography available.  At trial, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. 

THE INVESTIGATION

In August 2016, Hamilton Police were alerted to a pornographic picture that West had uploaded to the mobile messaging app Kik.  The image was of a five year old girl sitting in an explicitly indecent sexual pose on a beach wearing only a bikini top.

The Kik app detected the picture and reported it to the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre, who forwarded it to the Hamilton Police Service.  The police were provided with information regarding the account that the image had been uploaded to and two Internet Protocol addresses associated with the use of the account.  Police determined that both IP addresses belonged to Cogeco Cable. 

Detective Constable Jeremy Miller prepared an Information to Obtain for a general production order under section 487.014 of the Criminal Code.  Detective Miller attached an affidavit which stated “that the information set out herein constitutes the grounds to suspect” that the subscriber committed the child pornography related offences.

After receiving court approval to obtain subscriber information from Cogeco Cable, the police were informed that Steve West was the subscriber and provided his address.  The police then obtained a search warrant to search West’s residence for electronic devices and documents that contain suspected evidence of child pornography. 

When police searched West’s home they seized five digital devices and found 19,687 files containing child pornography, including images and 51 videos.  West was subsequently charged with possession of child pornography, distribution of child pornography and accessing child pornography.

THE APPEAL

The issue before the appeal court was whether West’s rights under section 8 of the Charter (the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure) were infringed and if the evidence against him should have been excluded.

West argued that the production order should not have been issued as the police officer incorrectly worded his affidavit by using the wrong legal test in an attempt to obtain the information from Cogeco.  The appeal court agreed with West and in its decision explained the law and the legal test for production orders.

A production order under section 487.014 of the Criminal Code allows police to obtain documents, including electronic documents, from individuals who are not under investigation.  This section allows a justice or judge to make a production order if he/she is satisfied, by the information placed before him/her, that there are reasonable grounds to believe that:

  1. An offence has been or will be committed;
  2. The document or data is in the person’s possession or control; and
  3. The production order will provide evidence of the commission of the named offence.

In West’s case, the officer misstated the standard throughout his affidavit.  He stated he had grounds to “suspect” and the correct standard is grounds to “believe”.  Despite this flaw, the justice authorized the production order. 

The trial judge also failed to address this error.  Given the trial judge’s error, no deference was given by the appeal court to the trial judge’s decision and the three member panel was allowed to consider afresh whether there was a basis on which the production order could have been issued.  The appeal court concluded that the production order was issued in error, therefore the search warrant could not have been issued and the search of West’s residence was unreasonable. 

The Appeal Court ruled that the officer erred when he swore in his affidavit that he had the “grounds to suspect” a crime had been committed, as opposed to the “grounds to believe” a crime had been committed. 

According to Justice Michael Tulloch, Hamilton Police “were effectively fishing for a connection to the offence”.  Thus, the search of West’s residence and electronic devices was unlawful and a violation of the Charter.

Although the Crown prosecutors can appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, we do not have any information at this time as to whether this decision will be appealed.  We will report any developments in this blog when further information becomes available.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  We have a reputation for effective results in defending all types of criminal legal charges.  We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.  We are available when you need us most.