R. v. Plant, [1993] 3 S.C.R. 281

Police in Calgary received an anonymous tip that marijuana was being grown on a specific city block. As a result of this tip, a police officer accessed the electrical utility’s computer system and discovered that a particular house on the block was using more than four times as much electricity as its neighbours. Two officers then performed a warrantless perimeter search of the property and observed that the basement windows were covered with something opaque and a that a vent had been blocked using a plastic bag.

On the basis of this information, the police obtained a warrant to search the home and discovered over a hundred seedling marijuana plants. Robert Scott Plant was charged with cultivation of marijuana and possession for the purpose of trafficking. At trial, he was acquitted of the trafficking count but convicted of cultivation. The only issues before the Supreme Court of Canada were whether the investigative tactics employed by police constituted an “unreasonable search” within the meaning of Section 8 of the Charter, and whether the evidence in question should be excluded pursuant to Section 24(2).

In considering these matters, the majority decided that the warrantless perimeter search of the property in question was a violation of Section 8, but that the check of the electrical records did not constitute an infringement, as the information collected was not sufficiently personal in nature:

“In fostering the underlying values of dignity, integrity and autonomy, it is fitting that s. 8 of the Charter should seek to protect a biographical core of personal information which individuals in a free and democratic society would wish to maintain and control from dissemination to the state.  This would include information which tends to reveal intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of the individual.  The computer records investigated in the case at bar while revealing the pattern of electricity consumption in the residence cannot reasonably be said to reveal intimate details of the appellant’s life since electricity consumption reveals very little about the personal lifestyle or private decisions of the occupant of the residence.”

Despite the constitutional infringement arising from the warrantless perimeter search, the majority concluded that the information obtained by way of the electrical utility records, together with the anonymous tip, constituted reasonable and probable grounds for the search warrant in question:

“In considering the material that was properly before the authorizing judge, however, only the information actually obtained from the tipster should be included.  In addition, this information could be amplified by reference to the fact that the police were able to locate a residence matching the description which they were given.  This information, coupled with the results of the computer check, were, in my opinion, sufficient to constitute reasonable grounds for the issue of the warrant.  As noted by the trial judge, there was evidence to show that excessive hydro consumption at one residence as compared to another may be a general indicator of the hydroponic growth of marihuana…”

Overall, the Plant decision greatly narrows the type of information that is protected by Section 8, effectively allowing the police to collect incriminating evidence with impunity so long as the nature of the evidence does not “tend to reveal intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of the individual…”

Decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on September 30, 1993.
Click here for the full text of the decision.

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