Concern at search powers

Olivia Caldwell



Stuff NZ Newspapers

Front Page

Police have seized almost 1500 guns in an effort to remove firearms from criminals in the wake of legal changes after the 2019 Christchurch terror attack, but some fear they are targeting lawful owners and using unnecessary search powers. Hundreds of guns have been taken under warrantless home searches, which are carried out when there is suspicion an offence punishable by imprisonment has or is being committed. Those at the centre of these raids, their relatives, lawyers and politicians have raised concerns over how they are being conducted and whether police are abusing these powers. Operation Tauwhiro was launched in February last year to crack down on violent offending with firearms. ‘‘A key focus of the operation will be investigating and disrupting the illegal supply of firearms to gangs and organised crime groups, which is enabling firearms violence,’’ Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said at the time. Since then, police have seized 1369 firearms and made 1161 arrests as of December, and they announced the operation would be extended. At least 36 of those seized were prohibited military-style semi-automatic guns. It is unclear how many of these firearms were permanently removed from criminals and gang members, and how many have been returned to lawful gun owners. As of last August, 241 of the 865 gun-related arrests were gangrelated, as confirmed by Police Minister Poto Williams in Parliament. Williams told The Press this week the operation had been ‘‘highly successful’’ and police had ‘‘never been more active in tackling organised crime’’. Others do not have the same confidence in the system. On New Year’s Eve, police used the Search and Surveillance Act to conduct a warrantless search of the Christchurch home of an antigovernment, pro-gun pastor Carl Bromley to seize his gun and ammunition. Police said they had received concerns about a person’s wellbeing. With no warrant required by using section 18 of the act, officers ‘‘ransacked’’ his home and took his rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and firearms parts. Bromley has not yet received his gun back from police. Bromley said he had made no threat with his firearms, felt police violated his privacy and were overly forceful. He questioned whether the search was lawful. In September, 81-year-old antique gun collector Robert Keenan had 110 guns confiscated along with his licence after police suspected he was supplying guns to gang members. Before Christmas police wrote to Keenan’s lawyer confirming he was not a threat and that he could have his guns back, but said they were concerned his home could be targeted by organised criminal gangs. But Keenan had died, never knowing his licence was being returned. Keenan’s lawyer, firearms specialist Nicholas Taylor, said he had submitted legal letters for at least 12 firearms licence owners after similar raids over the last year, winning the return of weapons for each because there were no legal grounds to remove them. Taylor said many of the police searches were of elderly men, who lived alone, and he believed it was a trend. A police spokesperson said: ‘‘I can tell you definitively that police do not have a policy targeting older gun owners.’’ Taylor said he wanted an independent authority to investigate which gun owners warranted home searches by police, as such raids could amount to a breach of privacy and the Bill of Rights. ‘‘Police are not particularly great administrators, and why should they be. We need an independent authority overlooking these.’’ The Search and Surveillance Act 2012 allows police to conduct warrantless searches if they suspect a gun licence owner is of danger to themselves or the community. A police officer in charge of a search can seek permission from an issuing officer either in person, over the phone, or by email. An issuing officer is authorised by the attorneygeneral, who can approve any Justice of the Peace, community magistrate, registrar, deputy registrar or other person to act as an issuing officer. The law allows police to move quickly and initiate and conduct such searches without the oversight of the court. Christchurch criminal lawyer Anselm Williams said firearms law changes had not made it easier for police to conduct warrantless searches, but police were taking more interest in gun owners since the 2019 terror attack. ‘‘There is no requirement that the court even know that a search is going to be conducted or has been conducted.’’ These powers meant there was risk of putting fit gun owners through unlawful property searches or firearms confiscations, he said. While police needed to be allowed to do their job, the public also needed to be satisfied they were doing it properly and within the law, he said. ‘‘In cases where a search has been conducted unlawfully, those involved should be held to account.’’ There are about 250,000 firearms licensed gun owners in New Zealand. To get a licence, applicants need to go through police interviewing, gain references and be determined as fit to possess firearms. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque attacks found police had not conducted these in full on the terrorist who killed 51 people. Canterbury District Superintendent John Price agreed firearms searches had increased. ‘‘The environment that we operate in since March 15 has been heightened. It has changed drastically. What we know is if someone had an ideology or a view or opinion on something like March 15, it just escalates – it is like cream rising to the top.’’ ACT Party justice spokeswoman Nicole McKee said all gun owners were being treated like ‘‘violent gang thugs or ... potential terrorists’’. McKee said cases like Keenan’s were not uncommon and police needed to be careful not to overstep their jurisdiction. ‘‘Yes, we need to make sure firearms are in the hands of fit and proper people, but we need to make sure that power is not being abused.’’ Well before the mosque attack, the home of journalist and author of Dirty Politics Nicky Hager was raided by police as part of an investigation into his sources. In 2018, police apologised and acknowledged they breached his rights. Hager, who is not a gun owner, believed police were out of their depth and the search was a waste of time. ‘‘They took it on like they were investigating a P (methamphetamine) raid, someone selling P.’’ Police admitted they inappropriately obtained Hager’s banking information, and that they obtained a search warrant despite him not being ‘‘a suspect of any offending’’. Hager said the search was unpleasant for him and his family, with his daughter having to be accompanied by a female officer to get changed in her bedroom. ‘‘They were doing a drug raid, on territory to do with democracy and rights, that they just weren’t equipped for. It was over the top.’’