Toronto Star

Dec. 15, 01:43 EDT

Wiretap use more than 'last resort,' top court rules

Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star

OTTAWA - The country's top court has tried to eliminate confusion over the use of wiretaps by setting out a new test for police seeking to eavesdrop on private phone conversations.

In a ruling hailed by police as instrumental in the battle against organized crime, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously rejected the idea judges should approve wiretaps only as a ``last resort.''

That, said the high court, would be too strict a standard for police trying to combat increasingly sophisticated and often dangerous criminals. Nor should the test be whether wiretaps are the most efficient means, as suggested by the B.C. Court of Appeal. Too lax, said the nine-judge panel.

Instead, the Supreme Court adopted what it calls an ``investigative necessity test.''

Justice Louis LeBel wrote that police can invade a suspect's privacy if ``practically speaking'' they have ``no other reasonable means of investigation'' to target sophisticated criminals.

The ruling means Crown prosecutors can proceed with a new trial for nine suspects arrested in B.C. on cocaine trafficking, weapons and conspiracy charges.

The alleged Victoria-based drug ring is believed to be linked to a major cocaine-trafficking gang operating in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. RCMP seized four kilograms of cocaine, drug paraphernalia, money and handguns after executing searches based largely on evidence gained through wiretaps.

Toronto Police Service lawyer Rusty Beauchesne applauded the ruling, saying it would assist police investigating organized crime and biker gangs where it's hard to develop sources on the inside, and difficult and dangerous to infiltrate.

``It's not often we get very good news in the policing investigative world that doesn't constrain us.''

In 1996, the B.C. trial court judge threw out the charges against the nine accused traffickers after an RCMP officer admitted misidentifying some of the informants whose tips he cited in a 130-page affidavit to get the wiretaps.

The ``inadvertent mechanical'' errors weren't so serious as to warrant throwing out the charges, said LeBel.

In 1991, the last year for which figures were available, there were 683 wiretap orders issued and 29 renewals of previously authorized orders.

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