Warrant not needed for truck searches: Judge

REGINA — Despite not obtaining a search warrant, the Supreme Court of Canada said the seizure of nearly 400 pounds of marijuana and a large stash of money in Saskatchewan was within the law.

Initially, the two men occupying the semi were acquitted by a trial judge who determined that the men had been detained arbitrarily and that the search infringed their right to privacy. The judge excluded the money and marijuana from evidence, causing the men to be acquitted.

However, according to a story in the Globe and Mail, the Supreme Court disagreed and in a 9-0 judgment said that an officer’s curiosity was aroused by a sequence of oddities after he stopped the truck on the Trans-Canada Highway. Each curious discovery gave him legitimate reason to search the rig more carefully, it said.

“A roadside stop is not a static event,” Justice Ian Binnie wrote for the Court. “Information as it emerges may entitle the police to proceed further, or, as the case may be, end their enquiries and allow the vehicle to resume its journey.”

Back in February 2004, Regent Nolet and John Vatsis were stopped by an RCMP officer for a random check. Vatsis was at the wheel of the Quebec-licensed tractor-trailer and Nolet was in the passenger seat. An expired fuel sticker prompted the officer to request their driver’s licences, logbook and vehicle registration.

Nolet’s explanation that they unloaded in Edmonton and Moose Jaw, and were travelling empty didn’t match the logbook. The officer also suspected the odometer had been tampered with.

It was then, while searching a duffle bag for logbooks or documents, the officer found $115,000 in small bills and put the defendants under arrest for possession of the proceeds of crime. The truck was towed to a police compound, where officers found 397 pounds of packaged marijuana – valued at between $1.1- and $1.5-million – hidden in a false compartment.

At no time during this series of inspections, searches and seizures did the police obtain a search warrant.

Judge Binnie said that the most contentious part of the search – when the duffle bag was opened – was legal because truck cabs have minimal privacy interest.

“The level of expectation is necessarily low because the cab of a tractor-trailer rig is not only a place of rest but a place of work, and the whole of the cab is therefore vulnerable to frequent random checks in relation to highway transport matters,” he said.“A stop may quickly precipitate a search, and the occupants either know or ought to know of that reality and govern themselves accordingly.”

At the same time, the Court said that police must have reasonable grounds to expand an exploratory search where they have no search warrant.

He said that, while rudimentary living quarters such as a truck cab do have a reasonable expectation of privacy, “the level of expectation is necessarily low.

“Commercial trucking is a highly regulated industry and commercial drivers are well aware of the police authority to conduct random stops and to search a vehicle for evidence of infractions…In the circumstances, it was not unreasonable, given the very limited privacy interest of the accused, for the officer to open the bag. At that point, the cash was in plain view.”

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