By Lorne Gunter
Mounties in Alberta are set to update their policy manuals regarding disaster response “in the very near future.” In light of the devastating floods that roared through the southern third of the province in the summer of 2013, that’s probably wise.
But the draft manual (obtained through access to information by independent firearms researcher Dennis Young) shows that RCMP’s K Division is intent on making gun grabbing a permanent part of its disaster action plan.
Since it remains a criminal offence in Canada to store a gun in your home without a trigger lock or outside a locked cabinet, the Mountie manual urges officers in the middle of a rescue operation to round up all the guns the see.
“You may seize any item in plain view that may provide evidence of the commission of an offence, if there is a pre-existing lawful reason for intrusion upon the person or premises,” the document claims.
No doubt the Mounties will argue that once they have been asked by local emergency officials to go door-to-door to hunt for survivors, that satisfies the requirement of a “pre-existing lawful reason.”
You might think after the hornets’ nest the RCMP stirred up in High River last year they would stay away from grabbing private property from private homes, but not so.
The manual also says any evidence collected by Mounties while scouring for survivors in evacuated towns must have been discovered “inadvertently” and must be “immediately apparent as incriminating evidence.”
In other words, Mounties can’t go looking for guns or meth labs or pinched credit cards. And they can’t examine private property to determine whether it is criminal. They have to know it’s criminal before touching it.
Both the existing and draft Mountie disaster handbooks rely on the “plain view doctrine,” a largely Common Law definition of what police can seize without a warrant. No doubt the RCMP believe “plain view” covers all their sins in High River, and that is why they are eager to codify it in their new manual.
But the plain-view doctrine as understood by Canadian courts is quite narrow.
Anything a Canadian “knowingly exposes to the public or abandons in a public place,” is deemed to be in plain view. Or anything a “peace officer … observes by use of one or more of his senses from a lawful vantage point,” is in plain view.
But here’s something I’m calling the “panty drawer doctrine”: If a Mountie is in a house without a warrant because he’s looking for survivors of disaster (legitimate), and he starts rifling through places no survivor would ever be able to hide – like underwear drawers, gun cabinets and fridges – then his actions are no longer covered by the “pre-existing lawful reason” for him to be in the home.
Nor is his discovery of any evidence “inadvertent.”
Similarly, if the Mounties search a home without a warrant after the immediate threat to human safety has passed, then they are not in a “lawful vantage point.” So they can take nothing they see – not even a giant metal tank labelled “Meth Cooking Equipment.”
If they go back to a home two or three times (as they did in High River), after they have already searched it once and found no survivors, then again they are not there as a result of the emergency. They can’t take stuff.
And if they target specific homes for warrantless searches because national police computers tell them firearms owners live there, then their purpose for entering the home is not protection of life and limb. It is an illegal search, pure and simple.
No policy manual can justify what happened in High River.