Saturday, July 4, 2009

Police State grows: the new Search and Surveillance law


Many of you may have heard discussion of the Search and Surveillance bill before parliament now. The text below is an overview of the bill that appeared in the October 15th Solidarity newsletter late last year.

The Search and Surveillance Powers Bill bill is the result of a report by the law commission who spent 5 years on the subject. It includes a number of changes to police powers that affect our lives, although few of them are really new. When Police Minister Annette King tabled the bill she said: “The law has failed to keep pace with technology”, referring to things like tracking and surveillance devices. She’s right in that so far the law didn’t always specify in how far bugging was subject to warrants, or it was inconsistent - the result is a law that streamlines this, giving the police blanket powers to install bugging devices. Everything else would obviously be too difficult for the police to handle. On the other hand, the inconsistencies in the old law haven’t stopped the police from mounting over 120 electronic monitoring operations during the past four years.

Similar streamlining will happen with electronic documents. For written documents, a search warrant would be issued for one particular type of document, e.g. financial records, and the police would only be allowed to seize those. In the case of electronic documents, however, the whole disk or computer can be seized, including completely unrelated documents.

What Annette King really means is that the law has failed to keep pace with police practice. For example, the new law gives police the power to enter premises and vehicles for the purposes of installing, maintaining or removing surveillance devices. During Operation 8 (and I’m sure for a lot of other past and present operations), a number of vehicles and homes were entered and bugged - regardless of police powers. Police will now need “reasonable grounds to believe that the evidence sought is in the place to be searched”. This doesn’t sound any different from the way thousands of homes have been searched in the past.

One of the things that is actually new - and worrying - is the fact that police no longer require a warrant to install surveillance equipment in public areas, including public parts of buildings. This means if the police are interested in seeing who enters the local post office they can install cameras there without having to worry about getting a warrant.

Not that obtaining a warrant has ever been a problem for the police, and it will be even less of a problem now. In the past warrants could only be issued by judges, JPs or registrars. Now they can also be issued by “other appropriate qualified and experienced people” - including police officers. And warrants can now be obtained electronically, i.e. no signature will be required.

New are also “plain view” seizures. This refers to things that the cops can confiscate while they are officially searching for something else. This gives the police power to go on fishing expeditions, where they enter someone’s house on the grounds of looking for one thing and then seize any number of totally unrelated items, just because they look interesting to them.

In addition to all this, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is being wound up and its tasks transferred to the newly created Organised and Financial Crime Agency of the police. This is relevant with regards to examination powers. As it is now, only the SFO (and the courts) can force people to make a statement. The police currently do not have that power (although they like to act as if they do). With the police taking over from the SFO, these examination powers are also transferred to them, albeit subject to special conditions.

The new Search and Surveillance Powers Bill will also effect other legislation - over 50 acts in total will be amended as a result, including the Boxing and Wrestling Act 1981, the International War Crimes Tribunals Act 1995 and the Wine Act 2003, just to pick a few examples.

The text of the Bill can be found here.

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