The police stopped a car for speeding. When the driver could not produce adequate documentation, they proceeded to search the car, and located a number of garbage bags containing new clothing with price tags attached. As a result of this discovery, both the driver and passenger in the car were charged with possession of stolen property. Both accused argued that the search of the vehicle was unreasonable, and that their Section 8 rights had been violated as a result.
Alicia Belnavis and her co-accused, Carol Lawrence, were acquitted by the trial judge, who excluded the evidence found in the vehicle. This decision was overruled by the Court of Appeal, which ordered a new trial.
On final appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that the passenger did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the garbage bags found in the vehicle. She had not, after all, identified any of the bags as her property.
In respect to the driver (Belnavis), the majority found that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the vehicle and that there had been a breach of her Charter rights. However, the police had reasonable and probable grounds to justify the search and the breach in question was not serious but technical:
The trial judge’s conclusion that the breach was serious could not stand. The degree of the seriousness of the breach decreases as the expectation of privacy diminishes. The reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a car is greatly reduced, in comparison to that expected of a home or office and it is further reduced when the car belongs to another. Here, the trial judge failed to take into consideration the totality of the circumstances. The seriousness of the breach, if any, was diminished by the facts that there was no ongoing disregard for the accuseds’ Charter rights, that there was no indication that any possible breach was deliberate, wilful or flagrant, and that the officer acted entirely in good faith. Finally, the presence of reasonable and probable grounds mitigates the seriousness of the breach. The violation of the accuseds’ s. 8 right was little more than a technical one.
Decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on September 25, 1997.
Click here for the full text of the decision.