In the early hours after someone is reported missing, police have often encountered roadblocks to potentially crucial information: clues to the missing person’s whereabouts held within their cellphone, computer, home and more.
That’s because when someone disappears, there is rarely evidence a crime has been committed, a prerequisite for police to seek the court’s permission for a search warrant or personal records to help their investigation.
But investigators will now have greater ease accessing potentially critical information. Effective this month, the Missing Persons Act grants police new powers to obtain warrants or access to records — such as hospital, cellphone or bank documents — without having to provide evidence a crime may have been committed.
Obtaining these records when they are needed will “help us develop a missing person’s path or footprint,” said Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders at a news conference Wednesday, announcing the legislation alongside Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
“I can guarantee you,” said Saunders, “that this will save lives.”
That’s a critical consideration, said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).
“It is important that there is specific recognition in the act that a person who seems to be missing may have chosen to leave, particularly in situations of violence or abuse,” McPhail said in an email Thursday.
McPhail said the CCLA generally does not support expansions of police powers but noted that the legislation contains some “positive checks and balances.” Those include the judicial review of requests for information, annual reporting by police boards and provisions requiring police and justices to specifically consider privacy interests.
“CCLA will be watching the annual reports policing bodies are required to publish as they become available to monitor the ways in which these exceptional powers for acquiring personal information about persons considered to be missing are exercised,” McPhail said.
Toronto police have come under fire in the past year over their handling of missing persons cases, including those connected to serial killer Bruce McArthur.
McArthur killed eight men with ties to Toronto’s Gay Village between 2010 and 2017, six of whom were reported missing. He was convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
McArthur’s first three victims were the subjects of a special Toronto police missing persons probe in 2012, which examined their disappearances before ending 18 months later without arrests. McArthur was interviewed as a witness during the probe but not considered a suspect because police found no evidence of a crime, and went on to kill five more men after the probe ended.
Since McArthur’s arrest, Toronto police have established a separate missing persons unit. Det.-Sgt. Stacy Gallant, who heads the unit, said the new legislation will help “significantly advance an investigation.”
“Knowing that a cellphone is active and where it was last used, (or) knowing the last place a credit card or debit card was used — these types of records can lead to potentially other valuable evidence,” he said, such as video surveillance of the missing person.
Former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Gloria Epstein is currently conducting an independent review of how Toronto police handle missing persons cases, an examination prompted by the McArthur case.
Epstein’s review, expected in 2021, is looking at police policies and procedures during missing person probes, and will examine whether some past investigations may have been “tainted by systemic bias or discrimination,” Epstein said last year.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis