Garda may use covert material to prosecute gangs

 

GARDAÍ ARE to be given new powers allowing them to break into criminals' houses, plant audio and visual bugging devices, and then use the material gathered to prosecute gang members in court.

The measures, which are contained in the Covert Surveillance Bill, were approved by Cabinet yesterday after being flagged last week in the wake of the murder in Limerick of Shane Geoghegan.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has cautiously welcomed the Bill. Labour and Fine Gael questioned its effectiveness. Sinn Féin said the measures must be closely monitored.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said the Bill was needed because organised crime gangs had become more "sophisticated" over the past 18 months.

He said the measures would not only help gardaí to prosecute those who had committed crime but would help prevent planned crimes and to bring conspiracy charges against those involved.

"However, there has to be a clear legal framework in place before this can happen. The main reason for that is the possibility that evidence gained in this way could be excluded at trial on the grounds that the rules on the inviolability of the dwelling or privacy were breached in obtaining it."

Under the new provisions, gardaí will apply to the courts to plant bugging devices for three months. In emergency cases a device can be planted on the permission of a chief superintendent.

In those cases, the device can only be used for 14 days. The emergency provision will only be used if gardaí believe a criminal is about to abscond, destroy evidence or intimidate a witness.

Devices can only be used in the investigation of arrestable offences carrying jail terms of five years or more.

All cases will be reviewed annually by a High Court judge, who will prepare an annual report for the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach can exclude sensitive cases from the judge's report before publication.

When covert evidence is presented in court, a Garda witness will not be obliged to disclose the methods surrounding the planting of a device. People who feel they have been unfairly monitored will have an appeals mechanism.

The heads of the Bill have been forwarded to the Attorney General, with enactment planned before next summer.

The heads have also been sent to the Human Rights Commission to seek its views.

Mr Ahern said gardaí were not being granted any new investigative powers. Instead, they were being granted new legal powers allowing them to ground prosecutions on the basis of transcripts of bugged conversations.

The bugging devices can be planted in houses and any other premises as well as vehicles, vessels and aircraft. The new provisions also apply to the Defence Forces, who monitor threats to State security.

Gardaí currently use a range of covert surveillance techniques, but the material gathered is used for intelligence purposes only rather than in the courts. The new Bill puts the techniques already in use on a statutory footing.

Mr Ahern said a proposal to use covertly-gathered material as evidence had been considered in 1996 when Veronica Guerin was murdered. Gardaí were against the move because it would reveal their techniques to criminals. However, gangs had now become more sophisticated, necessitating the new legislation.

Labour's justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte TD said the approach adopted by the Minister raised questions as to what he actually intended to achieve.

The Bill seemed designed to prevent the prosecution from producing or relying on covertly-gathered evidence without obtaining the prior leave of the court.

Fine Gael's justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan TD said the Bill was overdue but would "certainly not solve gangland crime". The numbers on bail had increased by 60 per cent in four years, there were some 30,000 unexecuted warrants in existence and funding for the DPP's office had been cut.

Sinn Féin justice spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD welcomed the measures, but said they must be proportionate and be subjected to judicial oversight.

The ICCL said the new provisions would rectify the absence of lawful authority for most forms of surveillance.