A Fair Cop?

The police claim that they need more powers to deal with crime.

Earlier this month, the Minister for Justice Mr. Sean Doherty told the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants.and Inspectors that new legislation to increase Garda powers was "at an advanced stage of preparation", but he refused to divulge exactly what these new laws would contain.

Mr. Doherty is at least the third successive Minister for Justice to make such a promise to the Gardai. As far back as January 1980, the then Miniister Mr. Gerry Collins was talking about the need "to remove some of the advantages enjoyed by the criminals" and promised a Bill by March of that year. Nothing happened. Acctually as far back as the Cooney reign in Justice there was talk of new meaasures "to strengthen the hand of the Gardai."

Then last year Mr. Jim Mitchell prepared a memorandum incorporaating the Heads of a new Criminal Jusstice sm which he 'intended to introodue this March to coincide with the Garda conferences and the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. This timetable had been agreed with the former Taoiseach Dr. FitzGerald, but the general election in February scotched his plans and the proposals never even got to the stage of Cabinet approval.

Now Mr. Doherty has made a vague promise reiterating the intentions of his predecessors, and he knows the Gardai will sustain their pressure cammpaign for new laws until they get what they want. At the Garda conference their president Mr. Philip Callanan put the Garda position to Mr Doherty in a most fortright manner: "We don't need any more assurances from you today," he said bluntly, "instead we want action."

This sort of plain-speaking from a Garda representative is nothing new. For the last three year the Gardai have repeatedly claimed that the legal system is restricting them in the fight against ctime,in particular the suspect's' right to Silence and tlie laws of eviidence, which the Gardai claim are biased in- favour of the accused.

What the Gardai want are new laws to make it easier for suspects to inncriminate themselves, and the price to be paid, they claim; is legal safeeguards and-civil rights which are sacroosanct in most liberal democracies. The Garda proposals include:

* power to detain and question suspects without caution for up to 24 hours

* power to Search premises without warrant

* power to take fingerprints, photoographs, and forensic tests on all susspects held for questioning

* the right of silence to be qualified so that the prosecution could commment on. this during a trial

* the right to make unsworn stateements to be replaced by cross. nation under oath.

The background to Garda demands for draconian powers as outlined above is a steadily rising crime rate and an alarming fall in the Garda detecction rate. In 1967, of the 20,555 inndictable crimes recorded, 13,213 were detected, giving a detection rate of 64%. In 1980, 72,782 crimes were recorded, but only 29,017,or 40%, were detected. In other words while more crimes are being committed, a decreasing proportion of criminals are being brought to justice.

However, once a criminal is brought before the courts, the chances of him/ her being successfully prosecuted are ~extremel~:high. In 1980, the last year for which figures are available, the conviction rate on indictment was 93.7%, and 95% for summary trials.

When one compares the detection rate with the conviction rate, it is eviident that the Gardai have a lot more to answer for than the judiciary, and the comment of Mr. Callanan of AGSI that "some members of the Bench are living on Mars rather than in Irish banndit territory", seems misplaced.

Clearly then, the problems the Gardai face are not in the courts, but in collecting evidence to lay charges in the first place. 80% of prosecutions rely on self-incrimination or confesssions of guilt by the accused, and the questioning of suspects is regulated by the Judges' Rules, chief of which is the right to silence .

As the law stands, the Gardai have no power (except for scheduled offennces under the Offences Against the State Act) to detain a person on susspicion for the purpose of questioning him/her unless that person is arrested and charged. The police overcome this problem by "inviting" suspects to go voluntarily to the Garda station to be interviewed. More often than not, susspects think they have little choice in the matter and, ignorant of their right to silence, confess to or implicate themselves in the crime under investigation. .

However, because of a court ruling last year, suspects must now be cauutioned as to their right to silence and be told that they are free to leave at any time. This ruling did not change the law; it merely imposed on the police an obligation to inform susspects of their rights.

The right to silence is not new or unique to this country. It is a cornerrstone of Irish jurisprudence, derives from English law and is embedded in the American Constitution. The rule acknowledges the reality that most suspects brought in for questioning are ignorant of the laws of criminal proocedure and are unaware that remarks they make can be used in evidence against them. It is also there to ennsure that the police do not have the opportunity to abuse their power by intimidating or forcing suspects into admissions of guilt.

What has changed though is the awareness of this right, and in effect the police are saying that the law must be changed because they can no longer rely on the suspect's ignorance. The professional competence of the police is threatened as a result, for in the abbsence of self-incriminating evidence, they face the much more difficult task of collecting evidence to prove their case.

Of course the right to silence makes a policeman's job more difficult, but the laws are there to see that justice is done, not to boost the police detection rate, and the problem is that the innterests of justice and the interests of the police are not compatible.

The Mitchell proposals currently being considered by Mr. Doherty innclude most of the demands being sought by the Gardai, and are a direct result of a concerted pressure cammpaign by the Gardai during the last three years. Both the Government and Mr. Doherty will have to decide wheether they are prepared to trust the Gardai with powers the judiciary connsider they are not fit to exercise withhout the established safeguards, safeeguards which strike a balance between the community's right to protection and the right of the individual suspect.