Should police be entitled to install video cameras in the condominium common elements in order to obtain evidence about suspect residents engaged in criminal activities?
In the case of R.v. Brewster, it was revealed that the police had installed video cameras in the underground parking garages and the hallways of several condominiums. Some of the cameras were installed without a warrant, but with the permission of either the condo manager, or the condo manager and board of directors. Other cameras were installed after the police obtained a warrant authorizing the installations. The police obtained the warrant in the event that they would not be able to obtain the consent of the condo manager or board. However, consent was not refused by any of the condominiums.
In all, there were 14 suspects associated with 14 units at 11 different condo buildings that were involved in the investigation. The police felt that video surveillance was necessary as it was not possible to conduct live physical surveillance as the suspects were armed, dangerous and members of organized criminal groups.
When the warrant was granted certain restrictions were imposed:
- All observations could only be made by a police officer;
- All cameras should be installed so as to minimize capturing any observations within a unit;
- There would be no ability to capture any audio.
While the video cameras did not point directly at any residential unit, there were instances where the cameras captured glimpses of the interior of a unit and residents in the doorway (including residents of the condominium who were not the suspects of the investigation).
In one condominium the condo manager gave the police a key fob and access code to gain entrance to the front lobby and the underground parking garage. This was done without the knowledge of the board. After police requested to install a hidden camera in the ceiling of the hallway, the manager obtained the consent of the board to allow the installation, but did not inform the board of the location of the camera.
The accused in this case argued that their rights under section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated as the police investigation involved unreasonable search and seizure that was not authorized by law. They took the position that a warrant was required and that the consent of the condominium management/board was not sufficient to lawfully authorize the surveillance cameras.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined that the condominium property management and board have the “full authority to determine these kinds of issues, relating to the safety and security of the common areas of the building, including the installation of surveillance cameras”.
The Court also implied that the condominium management or the corporation, itself, had a moral or social duty to assist the police:
“. . . the law-abiding citizens of the condominium building are entitled to cooperate with a police investigation, pursuant to their ‘moral or social duty’ and in order to protect their own interest in the security and safety of the building. In doing so, they act through the agency of the building management.”
The Court also concluded that no warrant was needed to authorize the installation of the cameras in the common elements as police observations and videos of the hallway were no different than police observations and videos taken from the street or sidewalk of a free-standing house. It was also noted that many condominiums have their own video surveillance cameras installed in the common elements to enhance the security of the condominium.
“. . . surveillance cameras are commonplace in the lobbies, parking garages, elevators and hallways of condominium buildings, indicating that the owners accept this reduction of their privacy interest in these common areas that lead to their homes, in favour of collective security. This interest in enhanced security in the common areas of condominium buildings is not surprising, given that a resident of a multi-unit building is living in very close proximity to neighbours who may not be known and who may be suspicious or even dangerous.”
” There is no reasonable expectation of privacy (or a very low privacy interest) in common areas like parking garages, lobbies, elevators and hallways, provided that police do not conduct intrusive surveillance of activities inside the apartment or condominium unit from their vantage point in the common areas.”
The Court further noted that while there was some interference with the privacy interests of innocent third parties, these instances were brief and were not significant.
The accused have appealed the decision. The appeal is scheduled to be heard on April 8, 2019. While the appeal decision will directly affect the accused in the case, the decision will also be of interest to condominium management, boards and residents as it will look at the extent to which police can install video surveillance cameras in condominium common elements and the privacy rights of residents while on the common elements.