Britain’s elite crime-fighting force continued conducting illegal raids for at least five years after judges first warned that officers were using unlawful search and seizure warrants, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
An Old Bailey judge ruled last week that the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) “deplorable” continued failure to address the warrant defects meant the conviction of three major drug traffickers had been secured using evidence seized in illegal raids — paving the way for them to appeal.
BuzzFeed News revealed that three major cases have already collapsed and hundreds more are under review after the NCA admitted that officers may have been searching properties and seizing evidence illegally for as long as a decade.
The outgoing director, Keith Bristow, told MPs in December that the agency had launched a sweeping investigation into all its live cases following recent damning court judgments on the NCA’s warrant handling procedures. But new court documents containing fresh details of the systemic failings reveal a litany of previous warnings that went unheeded for years.
Keith Vaz, chair of the Commons home affairs committee, said he would now call the agency’s new director, Lynne Owens, to answer questions about why “repeated warnings of these systemic failures were ignored”.
Judge Wendy Joseph said in a ruling last week that the agency should have been “on notice” that officers were routinely failing to supply critical information when applying to magistrates for permission to conduct raids for “many months if not years before and that their failure to rectify it is a serious matter”.
Court filings seen by BuzzFeed News reveal four previous occasions on which the warrant defects arose since 2010.
The National Crime Agency was established in 2013 by the home secretary, Theresa May, to tackle Britain’s most dangerous criminals, replacing the scandal-hit Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). But the new body is now engulfed in a major crisis over the widespread use of illegal warrants, which has put all its ongoing cases in question.
The issue originated at SOCA, which was was formed in 2006, meaning convictions spanning the past decade could be challenged. Lawyers have warned that some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals – including murderers, child abusers, organised-crime kingpins, and major drug dealers – may have to be set free.
In a fresh blow last week, Joseph found that the NCA used a further 18 illegal warrants to seize the evidence that secured the 2014 conviction of Kevin Hanley, one of Britain’s biggest drug barons, and his associates John Fowler and Chrysi Minadaki. The trio had smuggled millions of pounds’ worth of cocaine into the UK inside lorry loads of watermelons and pomegranates.
Astonishingly, the judgment also revealed that the bungling agency accidentally repatriated Minadaki to her native Greece after her conviction, meaning she was unable to appear in court to challenge the warrants. Both she and Fowler are now understood to be planning to appeal.
The search and seizure warrants used in their case were found to be illegal because the officers had failed to specify the offence under investigation or link the suspects to the particular addresses being raided when they applied to magistrates for permission to conduct the search.
They had also included a “catch-all” clause that was “drafted unacceptably widely” to allow them to seize “any documentation or material deemed … to be relevant” rather than listing just the specific property they hoped to find.
Joseph said these were systemic failings that had been caused by defects in the standard warrant application form downloaded by officers from the agency’s intranet, which did not prompt them to supply all the required information.
The fault was first flagged to SOCA by the National Police Improvement Agency in 2010. Bosses were warned of a “defect in the template used for ... warrants”, which “consisted of a failure to indicate on the face of the warrant the nature of the investigation which it was issued to facilitate”.
If a warrant is granted in the absence of such key details it has no legal force, meaning any raids conducted under its authority are illegal.
The same year, separate failings with the agency’s warrant procedures were flagged in court by Lord Justice Leveson.
SOCA was forced to admit it had illegally raided the homes of two men accused of defrauding the Ministry of Justice out of a quarter of a million pounds. Leveson noted that “the execution of search warrants was unlawful by reason of failure to comply with the law governing the drafting and execution of the warrants”. The men were paid £1,000 each in compensation and their legal costs.
In a separate judgment handed down the same day, the lord justice noted that 18 armed officers had illegally raided the home of an alleged money-launderer because the officers “did not give sufficient indication of the nature of the investigation in respect of which the warrants were issued”. He ordered the agency to return the alleged criminal’s property, but said it could retain copies of the evidence.
The following year, the agency had to admit in court that a “technical defect” had rendered the warrant used to search the property of a suspected money-launderer in Kensington, west London, “unlawful”.
SOCA was wound up in 2013 following a series of scandals and was replaced by the NCA, which inherited all its systems and many of its officers. The home secretary promised the new agency would take “a wholly new approach to the fight against organised crime” – but Judge Joseph found it had done nothing for years to address the repeated past warnings about the use of illegal warrants.
The NCA told Joseph that, shortly after its inception, a fresh warrant template had been issued to its officers by a judicial committee in 2013, but that the new form “still did not prompt the filling in of the offence under investigation”.
A spokesperson for the committee said last night that there was “no problem with the warrant form template” and that officers should be trained to ensure that they supplied all the information required by the law in the attached paperwork submitted to magistrates.
In the recent ruling, Joseph warned of “notable failures by the agency” to make sure officers were properly trained in how to submit a warrant application. However, she said there had been some improvements in recent months. She said the errors by the officers in the Hanley case had been “a result of failures of training and not any deliberate wrongdoing”.
She ruled that the agency could retain the drugs and illicit cash it had seized from Hanley and his accomplices because it would have to be immediately reconfiscated if it were returned, and allowed it to be used as evidence in one future prosecution.
The crisis at the NCA was sparked when a high court judge last year denounced the agency over its “egregious disregard for constitutional safeguards” after it sent more than 100 officers to raid the properties of three innocent businessmen and install listening devices without legal warrants. The case was one of three major money-laundering prosecutions to collapse over the warrant failings, and the businessmen are now suing the agency for damages of £13 million.
Responding to questions about Joseph’s ruling, a spokesperson for the NCA said: “Many of the points raised in the ruling have been addressed already, including changes to the NCA’s warrant processes in July 2015. Other points are being considered in the context of the ongoing warrants review. With much of the review now complete, we have not identified anything comparable to the two operations which prompted it.”
Tom Warren is an investigations correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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Richard Holmes is an investigations reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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