No right to lawyer in police interview: top court

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a person questioned by police in connection with a criminal case does not have the right to have a lawyer present during the interview.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday that a person questioned by police in connection with a criminal case does not have the right to have a lawyer present during the interview.

In a trio of related decisions, the Supreme Court also said a suspect doesn't have the right to re-consult with a lawyer midway through an interview, unless the situation in the interview has changed significantly.

The court also said a suspect does not have the absolute right to consult with a specific lawyer if that attorney can't be reached within a reasonable time. 

In the case of R. vs. Sinclair, the justices split 5-4. In that case, Trent Terrence Sinclair was arrested by the RCMP from Vernon, B.C., in December 2002 and charged with second-degree murder in connection with the killing of Gary Grice the previous month. Sinclair was ultimately found guilty of manslaughter by a jury.

At the time of his arrest, Sinclair was advised of his right to counsel, and spoke twice by phone with his lawyer. During an hours-long interview with police, Sinclair said several times that he had nothing to say and wanted to talk to his lawyer again.

The police officer who conducted the interview said Sinclair had the right to keep quiet, but refused to allow him to contact his lawyer and told him he did not have the right to have a lawyer present.

Sinclair eventually implicated himself during the interview. He was then placed in a holding cell with an undercover officer, where he made further incriminating statements.

Sinclair later accompanied the police to the site where Grice had been killed and participated in a re-enactment.

Statements ruled admissible

At trial, following a voir dire, the judge said the interview, the statements to the undercover officer, and the re-enactment were all admissible. 

A court of appeal agreed with that decision, and the Supreme Court upheld the appeal ruling.

In the majority decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Louise Charron wrote that the police, in carrying out their duties, "have to make inquiries from relevant sources of information, including persons suspected of, or even charged with, committing the alleged crime."

"While the police must be respectful of an individual’s [charter] rights, a rule that would require the police to automatically retreat upon a detainee stating that he or she has nothing to say would not strike the proper balance between the public interest in the investigation of crimes and the suspect’s interest in being left alone," the justices wrote.

In the dissenting opinion, Justices Louis LeBel and Morris Fish wrote that Sinclair's right to counsel was infringed because the police prevented him from obtaining the legal advice to which he was entitled. 

"His access to legal advice would have mitigated the impact of the police’s relentless and skilful efforts to obtain a confession from him," they wrote.

With files from The Canadian Press