Winston Ellis was driving an Acura. He fled from it. The police searched it - they searched him too. They found a firearm in the car - the keys were in his possession. He sought to exclude the firearm. The trial judge admitted it - having found no violation of s8 but a violation of s10. Ellis appealed. His appeal was dismissed: 2016 ONCA 598.
Ellis was seen street racing in an Acura. The officer who spotted him followed the Acura into a neighbourhood where he briefly lost sight of it. He then spotted the vehicle parked in a shared driveway between two residences – neither of which matched the address for the registered owner of the Acura (who was not Ellis). The officer then noticed Ellis walking away from the Acura. He radioed for back-up. Ellis was stopped by responding officers who placed him under “investigative detention” and advised him of such – they did not however advise him of his right to counsel. During the detention Ellis advised the officers that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The officers also learned that (i) his address matched that of the registered owner of the Acura; (ii) that he was a gang member; and (iii) that he was potentially armed and dangerous and had a previous firearms conviction.
The officers conducted a pat down search for safety during which he asked Ellis to empty his pockets. Keys, two cell phones and cash were discovered. The items were immediately returned to Ellis. With respect to the vehicle Ellis denied driving it, but said his girlfriend had earlier in the night (although he later admitted he had left it in the driveway where police had recovered it).
Ellis was eventually arrested for careless driving. The police decided to impound the vehicle, pursuant to section 221 of the Highway Traffic Act, as it was apparently abandoned. Following from that decision, the police chose to do an inventory search. Sgt Martin also testified that the search was incident to the arrest in order to find proof of ownership and to see if the ignition had been damaged. During the search the police discovered a handgun hidden behind a console panel.
At trial Ellis sought to exclude the handgun arguing, inter alia, that the pat down search and the search of his car violated section 8. The trial judge dismissed both arguments (although the trial judge did find a breach of section 10(b) but admitted the evidence under 24(2)). Ellis was convicted. He appealed.
With respect to the pat down search, contrary to Ellis’ submission, R v Mann, 2004 SCC 52 did not pronounce a general rule that a protective pat down search incident to an investigative detention can never extend to a search of the contents of pockets” @28. Where the initial pat down search supports an initial belief that the detainee may be armed a further search is warranted. The further search is logical and constitutionally valid in such situations: R v Plummer, 2011 ONCA 350.
Here the initial pat down revealed objects that could have been weapons, the Court or Appeal concluded:
The officer had a reasonable belief that the appellant might be armed. In these circumstances, it is not the function of this court, many years after the incident and with knowledge of what was actually in the pockets, to criticize the officer for searching the pockets to ensure that the hard objects were not weapons. A police officer in such circumstances is in a dynamic and potentially life-threatening situation and he or she must be able to undertake a protective search in a reasonable manner to preserve his or her safety. [@30]
With respect to the vehicle search, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge and rejected that a search incident to arrest could justify the search.
The police knew that the appellant and the owner of the Acura lived at the same address so it was unlikely to be stolen, and it was not otherwise necessary to seize any ownership or registration documents. It is also not clear to me what documentation relevant to the outstanding warrants could be discovered in the vehicle. [@42]
However, the police were entitled to rely upon the statutory authority provided in section 221 HTA to conduct an inventory search. In so concluding the court noted the following principles related to “inventory searches”:
- Impounding vehicles under section 221(1) imposes on the police the responsibility to keep property safe. In order to fulfil that responsibility the police must have the corresponding authority to search and inventory the vehicle: R v Nicolosi, 1998 CarswellOnt 2476 (CA) @29-30
- The fact the police may have ulterior interests, such as their belief a firearm may be discovered, does not render the search unlawful: R v Wint, 2009 ONCA 52 @11; leave ref’d 2009 CarswellOnt 3494 (SCC)
- Inventory searches are not limited to itemizing visible property – the police are entitled to open bags and other containers: R v Wint, 2009 ONCA 52 @14-15; leave ref’d 2009 CarswellOnt 3494 (SCC)
- Such inventory searches, however, rely on statutory authority, in the absence of such authority, where searches are conducted for policy reasons they will be unconstitutional: R v Nolet, 2010 SCC 24 @53; R v Nicolosi, 1998 CarswellOnt 2476 (CA) @34; R v Caslake, 1998 CarswellMan 1 (SCC) @30
In the present case the car was apparently abandoned – unlike R v Dunkley, 2016 ONCA 597 – the vehicle was left by the accused at a location and in a manner that supported the conclusion it was “abandoned”.
The appellant fled from the police and admitted to trying to avoid arrest on his outstanding warrants. He then parked and locked the car in a mutual driveway to which he had no right or association, and then walked away. His actions up to that point were consistent with those of someone who wished to dissociate himself from the vehicle. [@61]
In the circumstances, the vehicle was properly subject to impound and thus inventory search.