Wednesday, May 19, 2010

No Protection of Confidential Sources for Evidence of Crimes

From Eugene Meehan's Supreme Court of Canada Lawletter:

The National Post employed M as a journalist. M investigated whether C, then Prime Minister of Canada, was improperly involved with a loan from a federally funded bank to a hotel in C's riding which allegedly owed a debt to C's family investment company. X, a secret source, provided M with relevant information in exchange for a blanket, unconditional promise of confidentiality. In 2001, M received a sealed envelope in the mail that contained a document which appeared to be the bank's authorization of its loan to the hotel. If genuine, it could show that C had a conflict of interest in relation to the loan. M faxed copies of the document to the bank, to the Prime Minister's office, and to a lawyer for the Prime Minister. All three said that the document was a forgery. Shortly thereafter, X met M. X described receiving the document anonymously in the mail, discarding the original envelope, and passing the document on to M in the belief that it was genuine. M was satisfied that X was a reliable source who did not believe that the document was a forgery when he or she forwarded it to M. X feared that fingerprint or DNA analysis might reveal his or her identity and asked M to destroy the document and the envelope. M refused but told X that his undertaking of confidentiality would remain binding as long as he believed that X had not deliberately misled him.

The bank complained to the RCMP and an officer asked the appellants to produce the document and the envelope as physical evidence of the alleged crimes i.e. the forgery itself and the "uttering" (or putting into circulation) of the doctored bank records. They refused and M declined to identify his source.

The officer applied for a search warrant and an assistance order compelling M's editor to assist the police in locating the document and the envelope. He intended to submit them for forensic testing to determine if they carried fingerprints or other identifying markings (including DNA) which might assist in identifying the source of the document. Although the Crown informed the judge that the National Post had requested notification of the application, the hearing proceeded ex parte and a search warrant and an assistance order were issued.

The warrant and the order provided the appellants with one month before the RCMP could search the National Post's premises and included other terms intended to accommodate the needs of the National Post as a media entity. The appellants applied to quash the warrant and assistance order. The reviewing judge held that there was sufficient information to conclude the document was a forgery but that there was only a remote and speculative possibility that disclosure of the document and the envelope would advance a criminal investigation. She set aside the search warrant and the assistance order. The Court of Appeal reversed that decision and reinstated the search warrant and the assistance order. In this Court, the appellants and supporting interveners argued that the warrant and the order should be quashed because they infringe s. 2(b) or s. 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or because the secret sources are protected by the common law of privilege."

The Supreme Court of Canada (with one judge writing partially concurring reasons, and another dissenting reasons) that the appeal is dismissed.

Justice Binnie wrote as follows (at pages 2-3):

"The public has the right to every person's evidence. That is the general rule. The question raised by this appeal is whether the appellants can exempt themselves from this obligation on the basis of a journalistic privilege rooted either in s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of expression, "including freedom of the press and other media of communication", or in the common law.

Specifically, the National Post, its editor-in-chief and one of its journalists apply to set aside a search warrant obtained from the Ontario Court of Justice authorizing the police to seize what are alleged to be forged bank records and the envelope in which the appellants received the records from secret source(s). The police believe that seizure of the physical documents is essential to proof of the forgery, and that forensic analysis may lead them directly or indirectly to the identity of the perpetrators. The appellants, for their part, seek to protect the identity of their secret source(s), who may or may not be directly implicated in the forgery. If the police are correct, therefore, the documents in the control of the National Post and its co-appellants are not merely links in the chain of criminal investigation but constitute in themselves the essential physical evidence of alleged crimes - the forgery itself and the "uttering" (or putting into circulation) of the doctored bank records in the plain brown envelope.

The courts should strive to uphold the special position of the media and protect the media's secret sources where such protection is in the public interest, but this is not the usual case of journalists seeking to avoid testifying about their secret sources. This is a physical evidence case. It involves what is reasonably believed to be a forged document. Forgery is a serious crime...I agree with the Ontario Court of Appeal (2008 ONCA 139, 89 O.R. (3d) 1) that the media claim to immunity from production of the physical evidence is not justified in the circumstances disclosed in the evidence before the court even if the end result proves to be information that may lead to the identification of the secret source(s)."



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