September 28, 2022 By Mike Novakowski
Ontario’s top court has found that the police sufficiently corroborated a credible source’s compelling information, such that the reasonable grounds threshold for arrest had been met. In R. v. Williams, 2022 ONCA 596, a confidential informer—who had previously provided reliable information that resulted in multiple convictions—told an OPP detective that he had first-hand knowledge that a black male, nicknamed “P”, was or was going to be trafficking heroin and cocaine in the Peterborough area. The informer said “P” primarily drove a rental car, was about 6’2”, large and heavy set, and about 30-years-old. The informer did not know “P’s” real name.
The OPP officer then spoke to a detective in the Peterborough Police Service’s drug enforcement unit who provided some uncorroborated information that a male, who went by “P”, had recently been in Peterborough, sold drugs and frequented an address on Bolivar Street, which was known to police as a rooming house frequented by drug dealers and drug users. This uncorroborated information also indicated “P” may be Williams.
The OPP detective checked Williams’ name on police databases and learned his date of birth would indicate he was 28-years-old at the time of this investigation; his last known address was in Ajax; he was known to have a number of nicknames, including “P”; and he had an extensive criminal record with multiple convictions for possessing Schedule I substances for the purpose of trafficking, the most recent of which were from about four years earlier. The following day, the OPP detective spoke to the informer who said “P” had heroin and cocaine, but he was unsure where “P” was going. The detective understood this to mean “P” presently had the drugs. Police conducted same-day surveillance at the Bolivar Street address allegedly frequented by “P”. Police saw Williams arrive at the address in a vehicle, enter the residence for a short time, and then leave with two passengers. The vehicle was registered to a company and Williams’ appearance was consistent with the physical description of “P” provided by the informer. While police observed Williams for about an hour, he attended a motel and locations known to police for drug activity, all for very brief stops.
While Williams was at a gas station refuelling the vehicle, he was arrested and the interior of the vehicle was searched incident to arrest. Police seized a black satchel from the front passenger seat. This satchel contained multiple clear baggies with powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin mixed with fentanyl and various personal items. Police also seized $6,465 cash, sandwich baggies and two cell phones.
At trial in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the judge concluded that the police had the necessary reasonable grounds to make the arrests and, therefore, there was no breach under s. 9 of the Charter (arbitrary detention). The judge found police subjectively had the grounds for arrest and those grounds were objectively reasonable in the circumstances. Since the arrest was lawful, the warrantless search was reasonable as an incident to it. Thus, s. 8 of the Charter (unreasonable search or seizure) was not infringed. There was no reason to exclude the evidence and Williams – along with his co-accused – was convicted of possessing heroin and fentanyl for the purpose of trafficking.
Since his arrest was lawful, the search of the vehicle incidental to it was also lawful and thus reasonable.
Williams challenged his convictions to Ontario’s top court. He submitted, in part, that his rights under s. 8 and 9 of the Charter had been violated by police because the information known to them at the time of arrest did not objectively meet the reasonable grounds standard. In his view, the police investigation did not sufficiently corroborate the confidential source information such that the police had the necessary reasonable grounds to believe he was committing or had committed a drug trafficking offence at the time of his arrest. He argued that his arrest was unlawful and arbitrary under s. 9, and the search of the vehicle was unreasonable under s. 8.
Three appellate judges of the Ontario Court of Appeal, however, dismissed Williams’ claims that his Charter rights had been breached during the arrest and search. The appellate court found the trial judge properly considered whether the confidential source information was compelling, whether the source was credible and whether the information from the source was corroborated by police investigation.
First, the information was compelling. It was detailed in its description of the subject and the alleged offence and was coming from a source with first-hand knowledge. Second, the informer was credible. They had proven reliable in the past, although no particulars were provided about their criminal record or any outstanding charges. Finally, there was significant corroboration of the information provided by the source. The OPP detective conducted database checks revealing Williams had used the nickname “P” in the past and had a history of multiple convictions for possessing Schedule I substances for the purpose of trafficking. He also fit all the details of the source’s description. Even though Williams reportedly lived in Ajax, he was in Peterborough, which was consistent with the information from the source. Police also saw Williams arrive at the Bolivar Street address disclosed in the uncorroborated information. Williams was driving a vehicle owned by a company in Scarborough and, during about one hour of surveillance, made seven brief stops, at locations known to police for illegal drug activity.
Taken as a whole, the totality of the circumstances – including the confidential source information and subsequent police investigation – provided the requisite reasonable grounds that Williams had been or was in possession of controlled substances for the purpose of trafficking at the time of arrest. Since his arrest was lawful, the search of the vehicle incidental to it was also lawful and thus reasonable. Williams’ appeal was dismissed, and his convictions were upheld.
Mike Novakowski is Blue Line’s case law columnist.
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