What is Warrantless Entry and Exigent Circumstances?

Jospeh Fera Law Office |

A man’s home is his castle. Therefore, a person’s house is afforded much more protection of privacy than, for example, a person’s motor vehicle being driven on a public highway. In R. v. Paterson, 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified the law regarding the legality of warrantless searches of a person’s house when the police rely on exigent circumstances to justify the violation of sanctity of home. The Supreme Court held that in order to justify warrantless searches of houses, the police must demonstrate that there were: (1) exigent circumstances; and (2) those circumstances made it impracticable to obtain a warrant. The SCC held that the police cannot rely on impracticability to obtain a warrant to establish exigent circumstances. Rather, the opposite is true. The police must satisfy exigent circumstances before arguing that it was impracticable to obtain a warrant. Conversely, exigent circumstances alone cannot establish impracticability either.

Foot in the Door

In Paterson, RCMP in Langley, British Columbia receive a 911 call from a woman who is crying and is in need of help. Two police officers arrive at the apartment building and satisfy themselves that no one needs further help after the building superintendent advises them that the 911 caller, the victim, has already been taken to hospital. None the less, after being led to the unit from where the 911 is made, police knock on the Paterson’s door. Paterson opens the door, police question him about the smell of marijuana and Paterson says that he has some “roaches” or marijuana cigarette butts in the house. Police officers advise Paterson that they will confiscate the roaches but will not arrest Paterson. Paterson, before going to retrieve the roaches, tries to close the door. Police officer puts his foot in the door, and then both officers follow Paterson inside the house where he finds a gun, drugs and bullet-proof vest in plain sight. Police arrest Paterson, get a warrant and search the house which results in seizure of multiple illegal firearms and different drugs.

The Crown argued “exigent circumstances” under Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), Section 11 (7), in order to justify the warrantless entry into Paterson’s house. The Trial Judge agreed with the Crown. Paterson appealed, and the appeal is dismissed by British Columbia Court of Appeal and the case eventually reaches the Supreme Court.

At the Supreme Court, Justice Brown, writing for the majority of five judges out of seven, held that the police, upon hearing out about the roaches, had a practicable option to arrest Paterson, obtain a warrant and then search the house. Justice Brown further held that if the circumstances were not serious enough to arrest Paterson, then they couldn’t have been serious enough to enter Paterson’s house without warrant.

In order for circumstances to be exigent, the police must need to act immediately in order to preserve evidence, protect civilians or ensure officer safety. The Supreme Courtheld that since the police were not going to arrest Paterson, the concern for preserving roaches as evidence did not compel urgency. Moreover, the concern for officer safety was result of officers entering the apartment, whereas officer safety needs to be the cause of exigent circumstances, not the result. Hence, there were no exigent circumstances that compelled immediate action by police to enter the apartment.

Justice Brown further stated that exigent circumstances under CDSA require urgency and not merely inconvenience to the police. Impracticability was defined by Justice Brown as “…that it be impossible in practice or unmanageable to obtain a warrant.” He cites the French equivalent which requires something less then impossibility but exceeds mere impracticality of obtaining a warrant.

Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the evidence was seized as a result of unreasonable search and seizure under Section 8 of the Charter. Paterson was acquitted because the Supreme Court held that the admission of evidence, firearms and drugs, would bring administration of justice into disrepute under section 24 (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter).