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    Times (UK): Councils get ‘Al Capone’ power to seize assets over minor offences

    Powers under Proceeds of Crime Act
    — Freezing a suspect’s assets at the beginning of a criminal investigation
    — Presumption that all an individual’s assets are acquired through a criminal lifestyle
    — Search for and confiscate cash of £1,000 or more
    — Demand that banks and other institutions disclose financial information
    — Seek confiscation order for assets after a conviction
    — Collect a share of confiscated assets

    Source: Times

    The Times reports that, “Draconian police powers designed to deprive crime barons of luxury lifestyles are being extended to councils, quangos and agencies to use against the public.” The powers are being given to civilian local officials and government agencies as an extension of the Proceeds of Crime Act through a Statutory Instrument, rather than new legislation. (Here’s the Times’ explanation of what a Statutory Instrument is and how it is related to legislation.)

    The right to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property will be given to town hall officials and civilian investigators employed by organisations as diverse as Royal Mail, the Rural Payments Agency and Transport for London.

    The measure, being pushed through by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, comes into force next week and will deploy some of the most powerful tools available to detectives against fare dodgers, families in arrears with council tax and other minor offenders.

    The radical extension of the Proceeds of Crime Act, through a Statutory Instrument which is not debated by parliament, has been condemned by the chairman of the Police Federation. Paul McKeever said that he was shocked to learn that the decision to hand over “intrusive powers” to people who were not police was made without consultation or debate. […]

    His concerns are shared by leading legal figures, who believe that there is a risk of local authorities abusing the powers to search people’s homes, seize their money, freeze their accounts and confiscate their property. They also see parallels with the spread of counter-terrorist surveillance powers to monitor refuse collections and school catchment areas.

    Agencies to Receive POCA Powers
    — Councils in England and Wales Could seize assets from people in council tax arrears or parking fine defaulters
    — Gangmasters Licensing Authority Might seize property from someone profiting from underpaying wages
    Transport for London Could go after assets of fare dodgers or ticket forgers
    Royal Mail Might confiscate assets from a fraudulent postmaster or employee
    Counter Fraud and Security Management Service Investigating prescription fraud and theft by NHS staff
    Gambling Commission Could seize assets from rigged betting rings
    Rural Payments Agency Could confiscate money from farmers fraudulently claiming agricultural grants
    Financial Services Authority City regulator could seize assets of those convicted of insider dealing
    Vehicle and Operator Services Agency Could pursue profit made by haulier defrauding MoT or licensing laws
    Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency Could recoup profits from sale of counterfeit medicines

    Source: Times

    This news from the Times comes a few days after a New York Times report on the Poole Borough Council in Great Britain, which last year targeted for surveillance a family suspected of living in the wrong school zone. This is part of a disturbing trend of local councils in the United Kingdom using the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to track or prosecute minor offenses, such as littering. A year ago, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner criticized local councils’ actions in a report (pdf). He said some councils displayed “a serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality.”

    An explanatory memorandum (pdf) by the UK Home Office (akin to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security), says the newly empowered government groups “will also receive a share of money recovered as additional funding to incentivise further work in recovering the proceeds of crime.” The memo says the extension of the Act “will enable the various bodies to have a number of trained internal financial investigators […] This will also have the effect of making them less reliant on more traditional law enforcement agencies, notably the police.”

    The Times notes, “Councils and other bodies had access to asset recovery powers before but only with with the authorisation and involvement of the police. Now they will be able to act independently of any police force or law enforcement agency.”

    The Times also has an editorial decrying the extension of the Proceeds of Crime Act beyond its original purpose. “For too long the Government has yielded to the demands from the police for more powers. […] But, even if intrusion is warranted for exceptional crimes, we should be vigilant to ensure that power does not slip its moorings and end up in the hands of ordinary agencies for crimes of no great severity.”

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