Criminal Law

Increase in search warrants is startling and worrisome: Friedberg

New documents showing the number of search warrants executed by Toronto police has nearly tripled in a nine-year period reveals a “disturbing trend” that lawyers and citizens alike should be concerned about, says Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg.

“Getting a search warrant into somebody’s home is an invasion of their most sacred place,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“And to learn that the police have tripled the number of warrants in such a period of time while only obtaining evidence in about half of those circumstances is very concerning to me and should be concerning to everybody in the city. It’s startling.”

Friedberg, who has noticed an increase in the number of his cases involving warrants, weighs in on the issue after the Toronto Star published a story about the search warrant documents.

“In 2005, officers executed 487 search warrants in Toronto. By 2012 that number had climbed to 1,500 before dipping back to 1,359 in 2013. That means on average, police were executing four search warrants a day somewhere in the city, according to Toronto Police Service statistics,” says the article.

The newspaper reports that the Toronto Police Service data shows that “only 698, or half, of the 1,359 search warrants executed in 2013 resulted in Criminal Code or Controlled Drugs and Substances Act charges being laid, ‘and (those charges) may also include charges not directly related to the warrant.’”

Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash says in the article: “The test for a warrant (to be issued) is there may be evidence, it’s not the test that you have to meet for arrests or convictions and there is a mechanism by which these (warrants) are scrutinized.”

Before an officer can enter a home or a business, police must first obtain a search warrant, the article explains. To get that, “police must seek approval from a justice of the peace (JP) using an ‘information to obtain’ (ITO) document or affidavit prepared by the police,” says the newspaper.

Documents also show that Peel Region Police officers executed 232 search warrants in 2005 and that number had risen to 363 in 2013; contraband was seized, on average, 76.8 per cent of the time, Peel police data shows, says The Star.

Friedberg says one issue is the privilege provided to confidential informants.

“An informant’s identity is strongly protected by the law and informants know that,” he says. “Informants give police information for all sorts of reasons – oftentimes it’s money. Confidential informants are people who sometimes have significant criminal records themselves and may be unreliable characters with motives."

Friedberg says sometimes this results in unreliable information that doesn’t yield evidence.

He says some changes may be needed in the laws surrounding confidential informants and the role they can play in obtaining a search warrant.

“Sometimes 'information to obtain' files are heavily redacted and it can be very difficult for defence lawyers to get at this kind of information to scrutinize how the warrant was obtained,” he says.

Friedberg points to another issue with the fact that justices of the peace can issue search warrants.

“A lot of justices of the peace don’t have a law degree and they don’t necessarily have in-depth legal training – it should be re-evaluated who should be issuing warrants,” he says.

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