Hollywood crime dramas are infamous for the scene when an accused is taken to a local police station and permitted a single phone call to contact a relative or lawyer. While the storyline is myth - there is no limit on the number of phone calls available to an accused or detainee - a recent Alberta case established a new, real requirement for law enforcement. After a 19-year old struggled to find a lawyer using the telephone, the court ruled that police must provide an accused with Internet access in order to exercise their right to counsel.
Christopher McKay, who faced a driving while under the influence charge, told police that he wanted to exercise his right to legal counsel. McKay’s cellphone and other personal belongings were placed in a police locker when he arrived at the station. McKay was told there was a toll-free number available to contact a lawyer as well as White and Yellow pages that could be consulted. He called the toll-free number but was unable to find assistance.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that what followed was the product of a demographic deeply familiar Hollywood movies and reliant on the Internet. McKay assumed that he had used his single phone call and did not consider using directory assistance (411), which he did not think was a "viable search engine." Instead, he noted that Google was his main method to search for information.
Judge Heather Lamoureux of the Provincial Court of Alberta considered "whether Internet access should form part of police resources provided to detainees in order to facilitate a reasonable opportunity to exercise the constitutional right to counsel." After acknowledging that many teenagers view their smartphone, iPad and other devices as essential parts of their daily lives, she noted that Google is the primary source of information for everything from maps to medical care to access to lawyers.
In fact, the judge conducted a Google search for "Calgary criminal defence lawyer" and found that within seconds there was provided with a long list of potential local lawyers. Moreover, the judge noted that police routinely use the Internet for investigations and evidence gathering.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants anyone arrested or detained the right "to retain and instruct counsel without delay and to be informed of that right." For this judge, the failure to provide Internet access meant that the Charter rights had been violated, concluding:
"In the year 2013 it is the Court's view that all police stations must be equipped with Internet access and detainees must have the same opportunities to access the Internet to find a lawyer as they do to access the telephone book to find a lawyer."
The decision will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among criminal lawyers and law enforcement officials, yet it continues a growing trend around the world that elevates Internet access to a quasi-legal right. In 2010, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband Internet access a legal right for all citizens. A year later, a United Nations report concluded that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation.
For police, the decision may have resource implications, since providing Internet access will be more costly and cumbersome than pointing to a nearby telephone. It also points to how the Internet and new technologies force the continued rethinking of longstanding rules and practices as even Hollywood films may someday feature police directing an accused to an Internet-connected computer in order to exercise their right to counsel.
We are at an unprecedented time in human history. The real world exists parallel to and in tandem with the virtual world. It is uncontroverted that the vast majority of individuals born after the year 1980 first look to the virtual world for information, for education, for access to services, before they consider access to anachronistic services such as paper telephone directories and numbers posted on a wall. The computer generation considers the internet, the cell phone, the iPad, the Smartphone, essential partners in daily life. The average 19 year old looks to Google as a source point for much of the information necessary to carry on daily life. Google mapping, driving motor vehicles with the assistance of Google, access to restaurants, access to medical care, access to Universities and educational information, and access to lawyers, along with millions of other items of information are all contained on the metasource - Google. Indeed Google seeks as one of its missions to become the source of original information for the world.
 So what happens when a 19 year old is arrested and has never faced the prospect of trying to get legal advice before providing potentially incriminating evidence to a police officer? This Court takes judicial notice that the average 19 year old will look to the internet for information to get legal advice before checking White Pages, Yellow Pages or 411. In fact the accused himself has testified that he did not at the material time, even know what 411 was. In a statement of deep ignorance, the accused says under oath that he would not have considered “411 a viable search engine”. Transcript p. 8, ll. 4-16:
Q Okay. So at the time, August 22nd, 2011, when you were in that police station with Constable Vink, did -- what was your understanding of 411?
A I was not a hundred per cent sure. I would not have considered it a viable search engine or directory resource.
Q Okay. In the circumstance that you were in on that occasion, were you interested in receiving legal advice?
Q Okay. If you had not been in a police station, how would you have searched for information about legal advice?
A I would have searched for legal advice using the internet, more specifically, Google.
 So, what information would have been available to the accused if he had gone on Google and questioned Google as to “Calgary criminal defence lawyers”?
 A search of Google in five seconds or less, reveals the following information:
Criminal Lawyer - Respected with 20 Years Experiencehttp://www.criminallawcalgary.ca/
Criminal Law Trials and Appeals
Contact Us Now - About Us - Criminal Law Specialty - Impaired Driving Expertise
Criminal Defence Lawyer - Experienced Criminal Lawyerhttp://www.mahoneylaw.ca/
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 In short, in the manner of seconds, an accused person with access to the internet can Google the names of experienced top Calgary criminal defence lawyers including addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and other educational information concerning the services they provide.
Interesting that the Internet is considered an essential service, but there's no public federal infrastructure for it, and our government is mostly conserned with DMCA-like provisions that will strip citizens of rights on the Internet.