Even wanted criminals have some right to privacy, Alberta watchdog says

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

You might assume that someone wanted by the police on an outstanding warrant has given up any right to personal privacy.

Well, you'd be wrong.

Alberta's Privacy Commissioner has rapped the knuckles of the Edmonton Police Service, saying it crossed the line by publishing personal information about dozens of individuals with outstanding warrants in a campaign to get them to turn themselves in.

The Canadian Press reports an investigation by the commissioner's office into the police department's 2012 Project Operation Warrant Execution (OWE) found it violated the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act because police didn't limit the information they made public.

The 15-page report by commission staffer Veronica Chodak found that police can disclose information about individuals being sought by law enforcement. But the circumstances for Project OWE didn't warrant (so to speak) the level of detail the Edmonton department used, especially since some of the people named no longer had any warrants.

Project OWE was launched in March 2012 in an effort to clear more than 16,000 outstanding warrants in the Edmonton area.

Edmonton police first issued a public appeal in the media and on its website to anyone with an outstanding warrant to come forward and deal with it by April 2 “or risk the possibility of having their names and faces advertised publicly and police visiting their home and workplace.”

[ Related: CBSA chastised for labelling some on its ‘wanted list’ as war criminals ]

Those who didn't turn themselves in by the deadline would "run the risk of public embarrassment," because police "will be advertising the names of some people who have outstanding warrants in local newspapers.”

They followed through, beginning to publish personal information of a number of people with outstanding warrants. The project specifically targeted a "top 100" list of the most wanted offenders, though the overall list included warrants for offences ranging from failure to remove snow to assault and firearms charges, the report said.

The police ads, under the headline "Do You Know These People?" included a photo and name. The police department website provided names, ages, photos, height and weight. The campaign also disclosed information about individuals who no longer had outstanding warrants and whose cases were labelled "solved."

Although no one whose name was published complained, Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton launched her own investigation following news reports about the program, including the fact police had published the name of a young offender, which is illegal.

Edmonton police defended their level of disclosure, arguing it was not unreasonable as part of a law-enforcement function such as bringing someone with an outstanding warrant before the justice system. In fact, it said, Alberta's privacy law provides for such disclosures.

"Individuals in these circumstances do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in order to evade arrest," the police service said in its submission.

But Chodak's report rejected the department's position, saying police didn't demonstrate the detailed disclosures were necessary. And while publishing private information might be OK to expose those with outstanding warrants, it certainly wasn't for people whose warrants had been resolved, she found.

While the privacy law authorized police to disclose information related to outstanding warrants and any fines associated with them, the legislation also required police to limit the disclosure only to information needed to carry out its objective in a reasonable manner, the report said.

Chodak recommended police in future submit a privacy impact assessment before undertaking a similar effort, or any other initiative that would require personal information to be disclosed publicly.

[ Related: Privacy, intrusion issues dog rollout of unmanned police drones ]

Edmonton Chief Rod Knecht said that from now on, the police service will require such an assessment, CP said.

The department nevertheless considers Project OWE a success, having cleared up some 5,600 outstanding warrants, Knecht said. The department may launch another campaign in the future.

"Given the risk posed by some of these offenders, the enormity of the task we were facing and the challenges of locating individuals who, by definition, have found themselves outside of the immediate grasp of the justice system, the EPS very much needed, and continues to need the assistance of the public to fulfill its statutory duty of executing warrants," he said in a statement reported by CBC News.

The department, meanwhile, is facing a $40,000 civil suit launched on behalf of the young offender whose information was mistakenly released by Project OWE, CBC News said.