‘A reasonable expectation of privacy in her purse’

Does a search warrant cover property belonging to someone who is not the target of a police investigation?

This question was central to R. v. Le,  in which police found crack cocaine in Thao Hoang Thanh Le’s purse while searching her sister’s house under a warrant.

Le was not a suspect and was allowed to leave the house during the search. On her way out, she picked up her purse from the kitchen table. A police officer decided to search the purse, found the drugs and arrested Le. She was convicted of possession of a controlled substance and given a conditional discharge.

At trial, Justice Susan Griffin summarized the case as “involving a rather complex question: when does the search of a place become a search of a person — what is the dividing line between these two types of searches?”

Le appealed the conviction to the B.C. Court of Appeal, arguing she had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding her purse and that the search warrant did not extend to her purse after she had picked it up.

In a written decision released yesterday, Justice Edward Chiasson accepted the appellant “had a reasonable expectation of privacy in her purse.”

But he dismissed the appeal, on the basis that the purse was covered by the search warrant.

Chiasson wrote: “. . . a search of the purse while it was on the table was not unreasonable, because it was a ‘thing’ as listed in the search warrant.

“At the time the search warrant initially was executed it was merely an object in the premises.”

He added: “On the narrow facts of this case, I conclude that the appellant’s Charter rights were not violated by the search of her purse.

“She had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the purse, but the search was authorized by law and was reasonable. It did not become unreasonable simply because the appellant picked up her purse.”

The issue of whether searching an object amounted to searching a person was “best left to another day,” he decided.

Crown prosecutor Peter Eccles says: “I don’t think the court had ever considered how you treat [a non-suspect’s] property found at a search scene when that property appears to be covered by the terms of a warrant.”

The issue is likely to come up again in future, he believes.

“If she walked in carrying the purse, it’s not covered [by the warrant]. It would certainly have changed the result of the appeal,” Eccles adds.

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