03/04/2015 08:32 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Quebec man charged for not giving up phone password at border

A law professor in Halifax says the case of a Quebec man charged with obstructing border officials raises a new legal question in Canada.

The accused, 38-year-old Alain Philippon of Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., refused to divulge his smart phone password to Canada Border Services Agency during a customs search.

Philippon arrived in Halifax Monday night on a flight from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.

Rob Currie is the director of the Law and Technology Institute at the Schulich School of Law. He says under the law, travellers crossing the Canadian border have a reduced expectation of privacy.

He says border officials have wide-ranging powers to search travellers and their belongings.

"Under the Customs Act, customs officers are allowed to inspect things that you have, that you're bringing into the country," he said. "The term used in the Act is 'goods', but that certainly extends to your cellphone, to your tablet, to your computer, pretty much anything you have."

Currie says the issue of whether a traveller must reveal a password to an electronic device at the border hasn’t been tested by a court.

"This is a question that has not been litigated in Canada, whether they can actually demand you to hand over your password to allow them to unlock the device," he said. "One thing for them to inspect it, another thing for them to compel you to help them."

Currie says the obstruction case hinges on that distinction.

"It's not clear in Canadian law, whether they can demand the password in order to unlock the phone. So whether he's guilty of obstruction depends on that, and it's not something that's been litigated before our courts yet. So a very interesting one to watch," he said.

The charge against Philippon carries a maximum penalty of $25,000 and a year in prison.

He’s been released on bail, and will return to court in Dartmouth on May 12 for election and plea.