Hollywood crime dramas are infamous for the scene when an accused is taken to a local police station and permitted a single phone call to contact a relative or lawyer. While the storyline is myth – there is no limit on the number of phone calls available to an accused or detainee – a recent Alberta case established a new, real requirement for law enforcement. After a 19-year old struggled to find a lawyer using the telephone, the court ruled that police must provide an accused with Internet access in order to exercise their right to counsel.
Christopher McKay, who faced a driving while under the influence charge, told police that he wanted to exercise his right to legal counsel. McKay’s cellphone and other personal belongings were placed in a police locker when he arrived at the station. McKay was told there was a toll-free number available to contact a lawyer as well as White and Yellow pages that could be consulted. He called the toll-free number but was unable to find assistance.
What followed was the product of a demographic deeply familiar Hollywood movies and reliant on the Internet. McKay assumed that he had used his single phone call and did not consider using directory assistance (411), which he did not think was a “viable search engine.” Instead, he noted that Google was his main method to search for information.
Judge Heather Lamoureux of the Provincial Court of Alberta considered “whether Internet access should form part of police resources provided to detainees in order to facilitate a reasonable opportunity to exercise the constitutional right to counsel.” After acknowledging that many teenagers view their smartphone, iPad and other devices as essential parts of their daily lives, she noted that Google is the primary source of information for everything from maps to medical care to access to lawyers.
In fact, the judge conducted a Google search for “Calgary criminal defence lawyer” and found that within seconds there was provided with a long list of potential local lawyers. Moreover, the judge noted that police routinely use the Internet for investigations and evidence gathering.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants anyone arrested or detained the right “to retain and instruct counsel without delay and to be informed of that right.” For this judge, the failure to provide Internet access meant that the Charter rights had been violated, concluding:
“In the year 2013 it is the Court’s view that all police stations must be equipped with Internet access and detainees must have the same opportunities to access the Internet to find a lawyer as they do to access the telephone book to find a lawyer.”
The decision will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among criminal lawyers and law enforcement officials, yet it continues a growing trend around the world that elevates Internet access to a quasi-legal right. In 2010, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband Internet access a legal right for all citizens. A year later, a United Nations report concluded that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation.
For police, the decision may have resource implications, since providing Internet access will be more costly and cumbersome than pointing to a nearby telephone. It also points to how the Internet and new technologies force the continued rethinking of longstanding rules and practices as even Hollywood films may someday feature police directing an accused to an Internet-connected computer in order to exercise their right to counsel.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.