When controversial search and surveillance legislation was narrowly passed four years ago, then Justice Minister Judith Collins said it brought “order, certainty, clarity and consistency to messy, unclear and outdated laws.”
Opposition parties challenged the legislation as going too far, giving police and other agencies too much power to monitor private communications and search people’s homes and workplaces.
The Search and Surveillance Act has largely stayed out of the headlines since, but its use in the police investigation of a 1080 poisoning scare has now raised some troubling issues.
Golden Bay teahouse owners and 1080 opponents Rolfe and Ute Kleine were shocked when they received a police email last week informing them their home had been secretly searched a year ago. Hair samples from brushes and used dental floss, presumably for DNA testing, were taken as well as copies of computer records.
The couple were subject to a second, overt search two months later, and were taken for lengthy questioning. Seven months later an Auckland businessman was arrested and charged with blackmail over the threat to contaminate infant formula with 1080. He has pleaded guilty.
The Kleines’ lawyer says he has not heard of a secret search by police followed by another, later search on the same property.
There is no doubt that the 1080 threat posed enormous concern, and police had to act quickly. But they have failed to say why they took this approach in the Kleines’ case, other than to say the law allows for covert searches, “such as where an overt search would prejudice an ongoing investigation”.
Rolf Kleine rightly asks why a second search was needed when police had the results of their first.
There have to be very good reasons to carry out a secret search of a private home, and to keep that information under wraps for a year. Rolfe Klein had written to Fonterra in 2012 complaining about 1080 pellets being dropped near dairy farms, but the couple have even won thanks from police for their co-operation and are variously described as sweet, highly principled with no police records.
It raises the question of how many other secret searches have been carried out in the 1080 case, and in others. Police need to come clean with the Kleines and the public to avoid a perception that the act’s balance between law enforcement and human rights is off.