Small parties question police film law urgency

By Derek Cheng

The Government has said serious criminals may escape if the police are not allowed to use evidence filmed covertly. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Government has said serious criminals may escape if the police are not allowed to use evidence filmed covertly. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Government may face an embarrassing impasse over its plans to rush through a law to enable police with a search warrant to secretly video people they suspect of criminal activity.

The Green, Maori and Mana Parties have criticised the intention to use parliamentary urgency - which would bypass select committee scrutiny - and will oppose it.

Labour has given it a tepid reception and is demanding evidence that an urgent remedy is needed.

The Government has secured the support of United Future's Peter Dunne, but the fate of the bill may fall again to the Act Party.

Its parliamentary leader, John Boscawen, would only say the party was considering the bill, but the Herald understands more than one of its five MPs have serious concerns.

The Government wants to pass a bill next week sidestepping the Supreme Court's judgment on the Urewera case, though allowing the ruling to apply to the Urewera case itself.

It would mean police, under a search warrant, could still use hidden cameras to gather evidence - a practice the Supreme Court said was illegal.

Prime Minister John Key said it was necessary because police had been using hidden cameras for evidence in 40 pending trials and in 50 operations, and doing nothing would risk letting serious criminals get away with breaking the law.

But a clause in the Evidence Act - which lets judges allow evidence on a case-by-case basis, regardless of whether it was gathered illegally - has led to questions on the need for a quick fix.

"In all likelihood, the unlawfully obtained evidence will still be able to be used against criminals facing serious charges - or the 'serious criminal offending' that the Prime Minister is worried about," wrote Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight on his blog.

He said suspending the Supreme Court ruling could mean people might be convicted "in circumstances in which they otherwise wouldn't be found guilty".

Labour justice spokesman Charles Chauvel said the bill should face select committee scrutiny.

"Unless there is some major problem the Government can demonstrate exists, it seems to me Parliament can deal with this in February or March.

"We've got a Supreme Court. We haveto learn to honour its decisions ratherthan thinking we always know better than it does."

Police Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said police believed using hidden cameras was lawful, even though there was no lawful authority for doing so.

"Police acted on the common law assumption that if our actions were not forbidden by the law, they were therefore lawful."

But some Supreme Court judges were scathing of the police.

"The deliberate unlawfulness of the police conduct in the covert filming ... is destructive of an effective and credible system of justice," wrote Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.

Justice Peter Blanchard wrote that police were reckless.

THE LAW, AND WHAT MAY CHANGE

What the Supreme Court ruling said:
* It is illegal for police, even with a search warrant, to gather evidence using hidden cameras on private property.

* Such filming is a breach of the right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure under the Bill of Rights Act.

* Under the Evidence Act, improperly obtained evidence can be used if a judge approves, having weighed up factors including the seriousness of police impropriety and the charges.

What was the legal position before?
Though they have no lawful authority to do so, police with a search warrant are not prevented by law from using hidden cameras on private land, as long as they do not breach the Bill of Rights Act. Improperly obtained evidence can still be used under the Evidence Act on a case-by-case basis.

What the bill will do:
Suspend the Supreme Court judgment on the Urewera case, effectively leaving the law as it was until the Search and Surveillance Bill can be passed next Parliament.

For: National, United Future.

Against: Maori, Green, Mana parties.

Don't know: Labour, Act.

- NZ Herald

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