Internet child luring under section 172.1 of the Criminal Code is the act of an adult communicating with someone online that they believe is under the age of eighteen. These communications result in the adult attempting to meet with the supposed child offline, for a sexual purpose.
This child charge comes with severe penalties. A conviction for internet child luring includes a requirement for the convicted person to register as a sexual offender for the rest of their life. Additionally, child luring charges have a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail. The maximum sentence that can be imposed is 14 years’ incarceration.
Police have many tactics to find those who attempt to lure children. One such technique is to pose as a child on social media platforms and communicate with the adults who contact them. When the adult attempts to meet with the supposed child offline, the police arrest the adult ‘in the act.’
Recently, questions were raised in R v Mills 2019 SCC 22 about whether the online communications between an adult and the supposed child could be presented in court without prior judicial authorization.
Mills’ Child Luring Case Experience
Mills was arrested for internet child luring in 2012 after communicating with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl named Leann. They messaged on Facebook for two months until he arranged to meet with her in person. Their conversations included sexually suggestive messages and explicit photos that indicated Mills had a sexual intention.
But that 14-year-old girl was actually a police officer. The officer screen-captured all of the messages between Mills and the officer’s fictional alias, Leann, for the investigation. Those messages would prove pivotal to the prosecution. If those messages were admissible in Court, then they likely proved that Mills had a sexual purpose in wanting to meet.
Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides a right against unreasonable search and seizure. Mills argued there was a reasonable expectation of privacy to his private communications and that expectation of privacy was breached without a judicially-authorized warrant, which was not obtained in this police sting.
At trial, the Facebook messages were deemed “private communications” that were intercepted by the police without a warrant. The use of a screen-capture software to capture a record of the communications was an additional seizure of the communications that also required authorization. The trial Court found that the use of a username and password on Facebook indicated that Mills had an expectation of privacy in his communications, albeit limited by the officer’s alias. However, the Court exercised its discretion to admit the evidence despite the breach of Mills’ section 8 Charter rights and Mills was convicted.
The Court of Appeal upheld Mills’ conviction but found there had been no interception of the messages. The Court of Appeal found that the police were a party to the conversation and no judicial authorization was required if there was no interception. They also said Mills gave up any expectation of confidentiality when he voluntarily sent the messages to a stranger. Therefore, section 8 of the Charter was not infringed.
No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Online Communications
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Mills’ conviction for child luring but there were substantial differences on their approaches to the privacy issue. Although the Justices differed in how they approached the issue of privacy and online communications, they all agreed that the conversations should be admitted in this case.
The majority decision of Justices Brown, Abella, and Gascon found that although Mills may have expected privacy in his conversations with Leann, it is unreasonable for adults to expect privacy in their online communications with children that they do not know. Online communication adds unpredictability, not privacy.
The Court noted there is a difference between conversations of adults and children who are familiar with each other, such as family, friends, professionals, and religious advisors, and those who are strangers such as in the case of Mills and Leann. This decision allows police agencies to continue their undercover sting operations to attract child lurers with fake profiles of children. The police are aware from the outset that the fictional child is a stranger to the adult and no reasonable expectation of privacy protects their conversations. No judicial authorization is required as there is no potential for a privacy breach.
Justices Karakatsanis and Wagner held there was no privacy breach for different reasons. They found there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy from the intended recipient of a message, even if that intended recipient is not who the sender expected they were. The sender cannot know if the stranger they communicate with is who they portray themselves as, due to the anonymity of the Internet. Additionally, the screen capture of the conversations was seen as a mere copy of the pre-existing written record and not subject to a prior judicial authorization.
Justice Moldaver agreed with both the majority decision of Brown, and Karakatsanis’ concurring reasons that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy. However, Justice Martin found the screen-capture of previously sent messages was a breach of Mills’ section 8 privacy rights. However, she would still have admitted the evidence despite the breach, as the breach did not bring the administration of justice into disrepute.