Government approves covert Garda measures

 

The Government today approved proposals to allow the Garda carry out covert surveillance, including bugging, in order to fight gangland crime.

The Cabinet approved proposals outlining the circumstances in which covert surveillance can be used and dealing with the procedures gardai must go through to authorise such covert methods.

In general, gardai will need a judge's approval, but in urgent cases, a Garda chief superintendent can give authorisation.

The Minister said the the law would "buttress the work of the gardaí in preventing and detecting serious crime in all its manifestations and in safeguarding the security of the State against subversive and terrorist threats".

"Up to now it has not been the practice to use evidence obtained by such methods for legal and operational reasons," he said.

Mr Ahern said the draft law did not give the Garda Siochána any new powers, because they had used bugging equipment in the past.

But, he said, there would now be "no doubt about their right to enter onto private property" to place such bugs.

"The gardai have all the legislation. What they really need is hard evidence."

The Minister also told the Dáil tonight that he plans a major clampdown on the number of handguns licensed within the State.

“That situation is clearly unsatisfactory and I will be bringing forward effective proposals to deal comprehensively with it,” he told a debate during a Fine Gael motion on gangland crime prompted by the murder of innocent bystander Shane Geoghegan in Limerick city ten days ago.

He told tonight’s Dáil debate that multi-agency checkpoints would be mounted in Limerick and other areas by traffic corps officers, specialist Garda units, customs officials and social welfare inspectors.

Mr Ahern said he could never claim that the criminal justice system was perfect and didn’t need change.

“I pledge as Minister to keep under constant intensive review all aspects of the operation of our criminal justice system and bring forward whatever changes are sensible and required," he said.

Mr Ahern also intends to publish new legislation in the New Year that will establish the state’s first-ever DNA database.

Under the new laws, suspects arrested in connection with an offence carrying a penalty of at least five years’ imprisonment will be obliged to give a DNA sample which will then be stored in the database.

The Criminal Procedure Bill, which abolishes the double jeopardy rule, will go to the Cabinet in coming weeks and be published in 2009.

Under the Bill, if a person is acquitted of murder, the new law will not prevent him or her from being charged again with the offence if substantial new evidence emerges.

Mr Ahern said his Bill was evidence of the Government's serious intentions in "ensuring that the security forces of the State have every possible advantage we can provide for them so that they can effectively thwart the activities of those involved in serious crime".

"This is a vital piece of law to fight gangland crime. The State will be able to use collateral material obtained by means of covert surveillance as evidence to support or strengthen the case for the prosecution at a criminal trial," he said.

Mr Ahern said due regard had to be paid to Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights.

Surveillance was permissable under the convention, but only if it was proportionate, in accordance with law, and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, or the prevention of crime or disorder, he said.

The Minister said the new legislation provided "as a general rule" that the use of covert surveillance methods must be subject to authorisation by a judge.

"In this respect it differs fundamentally from the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission. This allowed for autonomous use of surveillance by the gardaí, albeit for a limited period."

He said, however, he believed the use of the law should, as far as possible, be governed by strict conditions and procedures, hence the emphasis on judicial authorisations.

The Bill also makes provision for surveillance to be carried out without judicial authorisation for a period of up to 14 days by a chief superintendent in cases of "exceptional urgency".

Separately, Mr Ahern tonight urged anyone with even the smallest "tidbit" of information in relation to the murder of Shane Geoghegan (28) in Limerick to come forward to the gardai.

Mr Geoghegan, an innocent man returning home after watching a rugby match on TV with friends, was shot dead earlier this month.

Additional reporting: PA