Terror raids ruling 'will erode drug busts'

17:00, Sep 16 2011

Police warn their ability to prosecute methamphetamine-dealing gangs could be at risk because of a gap in the law revealed in the Urewera raids case.

The law needs to be changed urgently so police can still use covert filming to investigate crime in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in the Urewera case, Police Association president Greg O'Connor says.

Suppression was lifted on the court's decision yesterday, allowing for the first time publication of the reasons why charges against 13 of the Urewera accused were dropped.

The court decided that police investigating what they feared was training to violently seize land had acted without legal authority in secretly filming on Tuhoe land.

Balancing that unauthorised gathering of evidence against the allegations led to a majority court decision that the filming could be used against only four people accused of the more serious charge of taking part in an organised criminal group with objectives including murder and arson.

The country's top judge, Dame Sian Elias, began the 109-page judgment with a pointed remark about the search powers police had been given. "Parliament has not however provided legislative authority for covert filmed surveillance, despite recommendations that it should do so."

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If the court approved police action taken without legal authority then it would be to the detriment of the freedoms guaranteed to all, she said.

Another judge, Justice John McGrath, said the unlawfulness largely stemmed from a "sluggish response elsewhere in government to the courts' concerns over the absence of legislation on the subject of video surveillance".

Mr O'Connor said an urgent law change was needed if police were to investigate drug dealing and organised crime.

The court's new interpretation had major implications for policing serious crime.

Until now, it was assumed that because video surveillance was not prohibited it was generally permitted.

"The Supreme Court has invited Parliament to pass a law authorising video surveillance and this must be done urgently," he said.

A police HQ spokeswoman said the Supreme Court decision did not "preclude police from using covert surveillance, but it outlined situations in which it could not be used".

A spokesman for Attorney-General Chris Finlayson would say only that he was working through the judgment with police and other agencies, including Crown Law.

Mr O'Connor welcomed the release of the court's judgment.

"Those who were quick to leap to the conclusion that police had no evidence justifying arrests should now be embarrassed."

The Supreme Court judgment was one of four about the Urewera case that became able to be published yesterday. Lawyers for the four accused due to stand trial next February failed in a bid to have the Court of Appeal continue blanket suppression orders that have applied until now.

In some parts of the Supreme Court judgment, police were strongly criticised. Justice Andrew Tipping said there had been a deliberate, or at the very least, a reckless disregard for the boundaries of legal power.

But he also understood the frustration police may have felt.

Justice Peter Blanchard said police seemed to have been prepared over and over to run the risk of acting in breach of the law.

The Dominion Post