Scottish police officers call for right to enter premises without a warrant

POLICE officers at Scotland’s largest force are demanding new powers to enter and search premises without a warrant, bringing them in line with colleagues across England and Wales.

Officers at Strathclyde Police have tabled a motion at the Scottish Police Federation conference in Aviemore this week urging a review of legislation.

At present, procurators fiscal have to contact sheriffs to issue a warrant before a search can be carried out, a practice which officers claimed is “prone to delay, dithering and [is] completely inefficient”. Evidence could be destroyed while officers wait to enter a premises, they claimed.

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However, senior legal figures have warned of the dangers of removing “checks and balances”, which could lead to key evidence being inadmissable in court. In England and Wales, some major trials are lengthier, due in part to repeated reviews of officers who acted without warrants, the Society of Solicitor Advocates said.

The motion is to be debated this week has been raised by a sergeant at Strathclyde Police and placed on the agenda by the Strathclyde Police Federation, which represents 7,200 members, nearly 50 per cent of all Scotland’s police officers.

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Secretary David Kennedy said there are day-to-day instances in which police risked losing evidence from delays in a warrant being granted. He told Scotland on Sunday: “This is a case of bringing legislation in line with the powers police have in England and Wales.

“I understand civil liberties groups will have concerns, but this is about giving officers more power to carry out their jobs on a day-to-day level.

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“If you get somebody for shoplifting, in Scotland you can’t then go and search their car without a warrant, but in England and Wales officers can. I believe that also extends to searching their homes. Now, if there’s a big shoplifting gang, they may well have learned of the arrest and will have got rid of the goods by the time the police have a warrant to search their premises.

“Another example is you have reason to believe there are drugs within a premises, but by the time you have got a warrant from the fiscal, they could have been destroyed.”

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Some senior officers have reservations about the move. One former senior police officer said: “The current system we have provides a scrutiny which is absolutely crucial to the justice system.”

John Scott QC, vice- president (crime) at the Society of Solicitor Advocates, warned against the removal of checks and balances from the current system. He said: “An awful lot of things can be authorised by senior police officers at the moment, for example in relation to surveillance.

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“The senior police officers I know welcome oversight and if a sheriff issues the warrant, they are completely covered. If there’s no warrant and something goes wrong in court with evidence, they’ve got nowhere to hide.

“Early involvement of the fiscal – increasingly common in the way serious crimes are approached – means the prosecution can guide the police, saying ‘this is what we’re going to need’. Actions the police were going take, that would have caused problems with inadmissability of evidence are avoided and it works well.”