New surveillance law unveiled

 

Gardaí, members of the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners are to be given new powers to carry out secret electronic surveillance of gangland criminals and subversives under new legislation published today.

The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009, published by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern this morning, sets out a legal framework for the first time that will allow the use of covert surveillance as evidence in criminal trials.

Mr Ahern today also confirmed plans for trials at the non-jury Special Criminal Court for those charged with a new offence of membership of a crime gang. The sworn testimony of senior Garda officers will form the cornerstone of gangland prosecutions at the court, which has rarely been used for non-terrorist trials.

The new gangland measures are the result of talks Mr Ahern and his senior officials have held with Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy and other senior officers since the murder of Roy Collins (35) in Limerick city last week.

Speaking at a press conference in Dublin this morning, Mr Ahern said surveillance evidence can play a “crucial role” in the fight against organised crime.

“In a nutshell, the Bill provides that secret surveillance can be used as evidence either to support other direct evidence on criminal charges, or as a basis on its own for a charge of conspiracy," he said. The minister said he believed it was necessary to involve a range of State agencies to combat such crimes as witness intimidation, assaults, murder, extortion, as well as money laundering and drugs/firearms importation.

“A crucial element in this strategy is the secret gathering of vital material about planning, movements, contacts and methods of operation of criminals using the latest technological aids, devices and expertise available to police and security services worldwide,” Mr Ahern said in a statement.

“There is no doubt that what we have been witnessing is a deliberate attack on the very foundations of our criminal justice system and society at large by ruthless gangs who are willing to murder not just ordinary citizens going about their daily lives, but also those who face up to threats and intimidation.”

He said safeguards were built into the legislation, including the requirement that surveillance must be authorised by a judge except in “limited emergency situations” where the approval of a senior officer will be required.

The Bill provides for:

- The carrying out of surveillance on foot of an authorisation granted by a District Court Judge under strict conditions for a period of up to three months, or in urgent situations by authorisation from a senior officer for a period of no longer than 72 hours;

- The imposition of strict rules governing approval, administrative procedures and the keeping of records in all cases;

- The provision of safeguards regarding the retention and disclosure of information concerning the operation of the act including criminal sanctions for breach of confidentiality;

- The admissibility as evidence of information obtained as a result of surveillance in criminal proceedings; and

- Rules regarding disclosure of information surrounding authorised surveillance in proceedings.

Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan welcomed the publication of the Bill and called for its urgent implementation.

“With a conviction rate of just 11 per cent for the 171 shootings that have taken place in the last 11 years, our evidence gathering mechanisms require an urgent overhaul” he said.

“The number of gangland murders has increased significantly with ten murders and 12 shootings so far this year, compared to 19 murders for the whole of 2008.

“Covert surveillance legislation is absolutely essential in the fight against organised crime. At present Gardaí regularly monitor criminals under schemes such as Operation Anvil but cannot rely on the material they gather in a criminal trial. This is an unsustainable position and I welcome Minister Ahern’s belated commitment to addressing the problem.”

Labour justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte said the bill was a “long-overdue piece of legislation that is clearly required to allow the Gardai to more effectively deal with the criminal gangs that are now plaguing our country.”

Mr Rabbitte hit out at the delay in the legislation. “The intention to introduce the legislation was announced in April of last year and it has taken twelve months to even get the Bill published.

“Why is it that the government can introduce legislation in a matter of days to deal with the problems of the banks, but it delays so long in introducing a law that may save people’s lives?” Mr Rabbite asked.