The National Crime Agency has been condemned as “incompetent” and “systematically flawed” by a High Court judge - after officers unlawfully used search warrants to plant a surveillance device without warning magistrates.
Mr Justice Hickinbottom ordered the NCA, known as ‘Britain’s FBI’, to seek legal advice when obtaining warrants in the future. He described the agency as “remarkably ill-informed” and “ignorant” about search warrant procedures.
The case relates to an NCA money laundering investigation involving a family that runs a £60m business empire including hotels and nursing homes. Five men detained by the NCA failed in their attempts to have their arrests declared unlawful - but in his ruling on their application Mr Justice Hickinbottom was scathing about the NCA’s abuse of the search warrant system.
The judge said the NCA “acted with patent and egregious disregard for, or indifference to, the constitutional safeguards” and that a systematic lack of understanding process meant the failings were highly likely to occur.
The NCA arrested Satish Chatwani, Director of Ruislip-based Fairview Hotels and Healthcare, two of his brothers and two business associates in January, following raids at their homes and businesses. The Chatwanis also own Davis & Dann Limited (DDL), which has an annual turnover of £50m and trades in pharmaceuticals, toiletries, soft drinks and beer and wine. Birmingham Magistrates Court had granted the warrants which the NCA used to search and seize material.
The agency turned their attentions to the Chatwanis and their business associates because of their alleged links to known and suspected money launderers,
Lead investigator Brian Hickman “suspected that various employees of DDL… were providing a money laundering service which included the placement, layering and integration of the proceeds of crime running into millions of pounds,” the judge’s ruling said.
The NCA’s legal team argued that the agency had been “driven by the ingenuity of criminals… to employ unconventional and unexpected policing methods.” They acknowledged that Mr Hickman devised a plan that was “deliberately trying to stretch the boundaries imposed upon such investigation agencies by the statutory scheme under which they operate”.
The five men failed in their attempts to have their arrests declared unlawful and remain on police bail. However, Mr Justice Hickinbottom found the search warrants were unlawful on several grounds including leaving out information such as the individuals and companies suspected.
The NCA also omitted to tell magistrates that its officers would use the search as a chance to plant surveillance devices to try and gather evidence from the suspects following their release from custody. One basic piece of information – grounds of suspicion – was also missing from the warrant.
Mr Justice Hickinbottom added: “This case smacks of incompetence, not bad faith.” The judge also said Birmingham Magistrates failed in their duty but that they were entitled to rely on the information provided to them at the hearing.
Karen Todner, managing director of lawyers Kaim Todner who is representing the Chatwanis, said the verdict was “very damning” and that the NCA “failed to have any regard to the fundamentals of the statutory [search warrant] scheme”.
Graham Gardner, NCA Deputy Director of Investigations, said: “We have received a copy of the judgement and are now considering its implications. We take this matter extremely seriously and where there are lessons to be learned we will learn them.”
Independent News Service