The Mail has a fascinating report on a raid by police in the United Kingdom that involved more than 500 officers and 6,717 safety deposit boxes. The officers used powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The newspaper’s investigation “reveals that perhaps only as few as ten percent of the boxes have any connection to serious crime.” (In a related note: The Times recently revealed that the powers granted police under this Act will soon be extended to local councils and civilian agencies; they will be able to act independent of police.)
As the first of the boxes was opened, detectives began probing the contents. Many were spilling over with bank notes and jewellery. Each was given a rough designation – for instance, ‘cash’ or ‘gun’ – and the words scribbled onto labels before they were placed in sealed evidence bags that were loaded into vans and given an armed escort to their final and secret destination, a secure counting house.
Here, every one of the thousands of boxes was to be intimately scrutinised. Not only did detectives have to itemise what they had found but match the contents to a person. […]
There was a lot at stake. Never before had the British police been granted a warrant as broad as this. The raids had been made possible under a controversial law, the Proceeds Of Crime Act (POCA), which came into being in 2002 and introduced an array of wide-ranging new powers to seek out and confiscate dirty money – the houses, cars and boats bought by criminals.
However, lawyers watching the police operation unfold were quick to warn that the strong-arming of these vaults and the crashing into each and every box was tantamount to the police having obtained permission to smash down the doors of an entire housing estate.
David Sonn, of Sonn Macmillan Walker, one of the largest criminal defence practices in London, says, ‘POCA was never intended for this. No one objects when criminals are caught and their assets seized – but shaking down everyone to get to them is specifically not what lawmakers wanted.’
Assistant Commissioner John Yates of Scotland Yard held briefings, and, “Brushing aside concerns about the invasion of privacy, he asserted that ‘the majority’ of the boxes seized belonged to criminals. Evidence was soon put on show that seemed to underscore his position. More than £53 million in cash was impounded, some of it stuffed into supermarket bags. Most of the money, said the Met, was ‘the proceeds of armed robberies and international drug trafficking’.”
However, the newspaper’s investigation into the operation reveals another side of Operation Rize.
[This version] shows how the vast majority of those caught up in the raids were innocent. They have had their lives turned upside down over the past 17 months. Many have struggled to recoup their money and possessions, been forced into legal trench warfare with police lawyers and told they must prove how they came by the contents of their boxes.
This is also a story told through secret legal papers, including confidentiality agreements struck with some vault depositors whose cases threatened to topple the entire operation. Although the police told a judge that ‘nine out of ten’ of all of the thousands of box-holders were probably criminally minded, criminally connected or felons, the paper trail reveals that perhaps only as few as ten per cent of the boxes have any connection to serious crime. […]
Within days of the raids, the police set up a helpline to deal with potential inquiries. They were overwhelmed by the response. One detective told Live: ‘Everyone presumed we had bagged a load of villains who would not dare claim their iffy property. But thousands of the box-holders complained.’
Lawsuits led to more data about the broad raid being revealed to boxholders and the public.
Statistics were by now causing the police significant problems. Mark Taylor, a former fraud investigator for HM Customs and Excise, now an associate director of Vantis, an accountancy firm advising families caught up in Operation Rize, kept a tally.
Of the 6,717 boxes targeted by detectives in the biggest raid in the Met’s history, just over half were occupied. And of those that were full, 2,838 boxes were now handed back, a figure that represents 80 per cent of the number of boxes seized.
Eight out of ten box owners were provably innocent. Taylor said: ‘Of the £53 million in cash that the police took, £20 million has also been given back and £33 million is now being referred to as “under investigation”, of which only £2.83 million has been confiscated or forfeited by the courts.’