Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Search Warrant – Can be An Effective Harassment Weapon.

Given the present business and political climate, search warrants will be another instrument that will act as an effective weapon of harassment against businessmen, politicians and dissent voices. We have recently heard of clampdown on unlicensed swiftlet farming by the authorities where search warrants were said obtained and executed by a certain statutory body and where laptop of a politician being seized. When caught in such a situation, most often than not, we used to hear people asking, “Could this be done?” “Why the warrant was issued?” “Was the warrant proper?” “What was the motive?” Can the statutory body act on behalf of the government department in the execution of the department? These were common questions asked by victims and concerned citizens.

The fear now is that once things were seized, especially computers or laptops, if tampered could land the owner into deep trouble with the law. Normally search warrant would be issued to search the premises by the magistrate if there is a probable cause that the incriminating thing could be found in the premises. However, it was always been found that magistrates used to issue these warrants as long as there are applications for them as if the granting of these search warrants should be an automatic exercise of power. This is not correct in law. The mechanical exercise by the magistrates in issuing these warrants could be challenged in court. Sometimes, search warrants could also be issued to the wrong authorities, thus, rendering the execution o the warrant an illegal act. Search warrants should also not be issued as a fishing expedition by the authorities.

Read the Search Warrant properly

When served with the search warrant it is advisable for the occupants of premises searched to read the contents of the search warrant properly to ensure that the search warrant was still valid in law. A search warrant is not valid in law if no seal of the court was found and if not dated or that the execution date of the warrant has expired or that the search warrant was not signed by a magistrate. The warrant is defective in law if it also failed to state the incriminating things that are to be seized. At times, the officer who came to your premises may say that he had a search warrant, but, forgot to bring it with him. This is not allowed at all. He could be in uniform or could have introduced himself as an officer from the relevant government department and if he enters into your premises he could be liable for trespass.

If the seizing officer seized things not stated in the search warrant, you have to protect your right by first lodging a police report of the things seized and then sue the officer to court for damages. During search, it is also advisable that you should not be alone. You need to get neighbours and friends to be present in the premises and watch the officers carrying out the search. It is also advisable to take photographs of the search and also of things seized for your record. Unscrupulous officers could just plant some incriminating things in the premises before arresting you.

Get the Search List

After seizure and before the seizing officer left the premises get him signed for you a search list. This search list should record down the things seized, including their descriptions and conditions at time of seizure. The law also requires the seized things to be brought before a magistrate immediately and the officer should not be allowed to make a detour or to delay his journey to the court. Make sure that if gold or jewelleries were seized, the seizing officer should not be allowed to give misleading descriptions on these in the search list.

These officers may wish to outsmart you. For gold, they may describe it as yellow metal and for other jewelleries such as diamonds they describe it as “fashion wear” or “costume” jewelleries. Make sure you put these gold and jewelleries under a photocopy machine to have them photocopied. Also make sure you measure their lengths and sizes. Their weights should be taken and be clearly written in the search list. If watches were seized, the model and brand name of the watches should be properly recorded.

After the search list has been prepared it must be signed by the seizing officer and a copy must be given to you. Tell the officer that you need to follow him in his car to the court with the things seized. This is a precautionary measure to ensure no tampering of the things seized. Upon the seized things handed to magistrate, the magistrate has to deal with the seized things in accordance with the law.

Right to challenge Search Warrant

As power to obtain and issue of search warrants could easily been abused by unscrupulous officers in the authority, you may also wish to challenge to propriety of the search warrants in the High Court and to get back your property. Rights to property is protected by Article 13(1) of the Federal Constitution which states that “no person shall be deprived of property save in accordance with law”.

If things like liquids, tablets, medicines and computers are seized from you, it is advisable that you have to fight in court for the release of these properties and should not allow the authorities to hold on them as evidence in their investigation. You should file an urgent application to the court. This is because once allowed to be in the hands of the investigating agency, they could easily be tampered with to maliciously incriminate you with criminal charges for a crime never been committed by you. What I am concerned it that we just don’t want pain killers to be later on to be produced as dangerous drugs and harmless liquids seized to be said contained prohibited chemicals or poisons.

So beware of search warrants as it can be an instrument that could land you into deep trouble if you don’t know how to deal with them.

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