The Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, today, which addressed whether law enforcement could indiscriminately search the mobile devices of individuals upon arrest. Whereas the Charter requires prior judicial authorization based on reasonable grounds in most instances, law enforcement are granted more latitude when searching individuals under arrest. The question in Fearon (and in a similar appeal heard by the United States Supreme Court around the same time - Riley v. California, 134 St.Ct. 2473 (2014), was whether this broad rule should be applied to mobile devices given the rich amounts of information contained on these devices. In its intervention, CIPPIC argued that the breadth of the power to search on arrest combined with the ubiquitous use and far-ranging data contained on mobile devices will leave few instances where law enforcement cannot rummage through cell phones.
While acknowledging the high privacy interest in mobile devices requires limiting access on arrest to situations where an immediate investigative purpose exists, a split decision of the court provided wide latitude for law enforcement to scour mobile data receptacles on arrest in many if not most instances. This is because, as noted by the dissent, mobile devices are implicated in most of our activities, so law enforcement will almost always be able to advance a general prospect that such a device might yield evidence of a witness, co-conspirator, or object of crime. Similarly, as noted by the dissent, while not each search of a mobile device will reveal sensitive information, the knowledge of an impending search is likely to have a chilling effect and, in those instances where an invasion occurs, there will not be an opportunity to remedy the issue ex post. In spite of this, the majority found that law enforcement objectives must prevail. The decision appears at odds with a string of supreme court decisions upholding additional protections for data receptacles, as well as with the United States. In the US, a concern for officer safety and the need to prevent destruction of evidence has, historically, motivated a search on arrest rule as broad as Canada's, but as the US Supreme court recently found in Riley/Wurie, this rule does not extend to mobile devices.