Friday, February 24, 2012

Self-service search warrants after Damache v. DPP

A peculiar feature of Irish law for many outside observers is the fact that search warrants are treated as being an executive rather than judicial function (PDF, ch.4). As a result a number of statutes give police the power to themselves issue such warrants on a "self-service" basis. Yesterday's Supreme Court decision in Damache v. DPP, however, cuts back the scope of these powers somewhat.

In this case Damache was suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to murder Lars Vilks, one of a number of cartoonists said to have insulted Islam by drawing Mohummad. On foot of this suspicion, a senior garda issued a search warrant in relation to his home by under s. 29(1) of the Offences Against the State Act 1939 (as inserted by s. 5 of the Criminal Law Act 1976). That section is exceptionally wide and in essence allows a senior garda to issue a search warrant in any terrorist related case in respect of any location without any special circumstances having to be shown:
Where a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of superintendent is satisfied that there is reasonable ground for believing that evidence of or relating to the commission or intended commission of an offence under this Act or the Criminal Law Act, 1976, or an offence which is for the time being a scheduled offence for the purposes of Part V of this Act, or evidence relating to the commission or intended commission of treason, is to be found in any building or part of a building or in any vehicle, vessel, aircraft or hovercraft or in any other place whatsoever, he may issue to a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of sergeant a search warrant under this section in relation to such place.
Crucially, the garda in question had been centrally involved in the investigation and there were no circumstances of urgency or time pressure in the case. Was the legislation valid insofar as it allowed a warrant to be issued in these circumstances?

Initially, the High Court held that it was. In a disappointing decision which relied on the fallacy that "modern terrorism is different" Kearns P. held that a search warrant was merely a step in the investigative process which did not have to be issued by an independent authority and that in any event the section would be justified on the basis that:
the security demands of countering international terrorism are of a quite different order to those which apply in what might be described as routine criminal offences. Serious injury and harm can be unleashed at any point in the globe by terrorists who can avail of modern technology to devastating effect. That fact was amply borne out by the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11th September, 2001, and many other terrorist acts before and since. The international terrorism of the modern age is a sophisticated, computerised and fast moving process where crucial evidence may be lost in minutes or seconds in the absence of speedy and effective action by police authorities.
On appeal, however, the Supreme Court took an entirely different approach. Building on earlier Irish authorities and applying the ECtHR decision in Camenzind v. Switzerland and the Canadian Supreme Court decision in Hunter v. Southam Inc the court devloped the principle that search warrants should generally only be issued by an independent person:
For the process in obtaining a search warrant to be meaningful, it is necessary for the person authorising the search to be able to assess the conflicting interests of the State and the individual in an impartial manner. Thus, the person should be independent of the issue and act judicially.
Applying this, the court found that the section was invalid insofar as it allowed for search warrants to be granted in respect of any location by a garda involved in the investigation without there being any special circumstances justifying a departure from this rule:
54. This case is decided on its own circumstances. These circumstances include the fact that the warrant was issued by a member of a Garda Síochána investigating team which was investigating the matters. A member of An Garda Síochána who is part of an investigating team is not independent on matters related to the investigation. In the process of obtaining a search warrant, the person authorising the search is required to be able to assess the conflicting interests of the State and the individual person, such as the appellant. In this case the person authorising the warrant was not independent. In the circumstances of this case a person issuing the search warrant should be independent of the Garda Síochána, to provide effective independence.

55. The circumstances of the appellant’s case also includes the fact that the place for which the search warrant was issued, and which was searched, was the appellant’s dwelling house. The Constitution in Article 40.5 expressly provides that the dwelling is inviolable and shall not be forcibly entered, save in accordance with law, which means without stooping to methods which ignore the fundamental norms of the legal order postulated by the Constitution. Entry into a home is at the core of potential State interference with the inviolability of the dwelling.

56. These two circumstances are at the kernel of the Court’s decision.

57. No issue of urgency arose in this case, and the Court has not considered or addressed situations of urgency.

58. The Court points out that it is best practice to keep a record of the basis upon which a search warrant is granted.

59. This Court would grant a declaration that s. 29(1) of the Offences against the State Act, 1939 (as inserted by s. 5 of the Criminal Law Act, 1976) and referred to as s. 29(1) of the Act of 1939, is repugnant to the Constitution as it permitted a search of the appellant’s home contrary to the Constitution, on foot of a warrant which was not issued by an independent person.
This is in some ways quite a narrow decision. The court placed great stress on the fact that the search related to a dwellinghouse - suggesting that powers of search relating to business premises might be treated differently. Similarly, the court noted that the decision didn't relate to cases of urgency which would seem to leave intact a number of garda powers to issue search warrants in situations where "circumstances of urgency giving rise to the need for the immediate issue of the search warrant would render it impracticable to apply to a judge of the District Court or a Peace Commissioner".

Significantly, however,  the court clearly flags a preference for search warrants to be issued judicially in future. Rather than simply requiring that a search warrant be issued by a garda who was not personally involved in the investigation, the court holds that "in the circumstances of this case a person issuing the search warrant should be independent of the Garda Síochána, to provide effective independence". This would seem to require that any power to issue search warrants in respect of the home should only be exercised by an outside authority (presumably a district court judge) except in cases of urgency.

At the very least this will force a reevaluation of garda practice in this area - and should also require reconsideration of the procedures in related areas such as GPS tracking or access to telephone and internet data where authorisations are granted internally within the Garda.

1 comment:

  1. On a sort of related note, the US has went the opposite direction for mobile phone tracking:

    http : // arstechnica . com /tech-policy/2012/08/federal-court-rules-cops-can-warantlessly-track-suspects-via-cellphone/

    Federal court rules cops can warrantlessly track suspects via cellphone
    Geo-data received based on "reasonable grounds" phone was connected to a crime.

    by Cyrus Farivar - Aug 15 2012, 1:30am IST


    A pair of mobile phones betrayed the location of drug trafficker Melvin Skinner.

    In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that law enforcement has the right to warrantlessly obtain location data from a cellphone in order to track a suspect.