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Police and La Presse: Warrants not warranted

The discovery that the Montreal Police obtained a warrant to monitor the phone of La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé, for several months, has rightly galvanized efforts to give substantially stronger protection to journalists and their sources.

It wasn't that the police were investigating Mr. Lagacé; on the contrary, they were piggybacking on the columnist's work, and that of his sources, to investigate one of their own. They also obtained a warrant to tap the communications of another La Presse journalist, Vincent Larouche. As a result, Montreal Chief Philippe Pichet has been unrepentant, saying, "There were criminal allegations against a police officer, and we have a job to do."

This isn't only about cops and robbers and reporters. Much of our legal system, and our way of life, is based on the idea that a person's home and personal effects are his or her castle. They cannot be violated without a warrant. A judge or justice of the peace has to assess whether a violation of privacy is legally justified. Police turning reporters into unwitting police sources stretches the limits very far.

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The newly arrived independent Senator André Pratte, formerly also of La Presse, had already expressed hope that the Liberal government would act to give better protection to reporters and their sources. And Senator Claude Carignan, a Conservative, this week introduced a private member's bill, the Journalistic Sources Protection Act. Bill S-231 would amend both the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act.

Of course, private members' bills, especially those that begin in the Senate, don't often become law. They tend to get lost in the shuffle, unless the government smiles upon them. This is an issue, and a bill, that the Trudeau government should make part of its agenda.

What happened in Montreal raises question about when warrants are granted to police, under what circumstances and by what judicial authority. Warrants are a fundamental guarantee that the privacy rights of all citizens will only be infringed in exceptional circumstances, and after a careful and legal test that balances public safety against privacy. Yet it was clearly too easy for the Montreal police to obtain their warrants in this case. Fixing that should be top of mind for the government.

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