Alexander Baker

Watering down police search warrants won’t help cut phone theft

Credit: Getty images

Your phone has been stolen. In the bustle of the crowd there’s no way of telling who took it and how far away it is by now. Luckily, you’re with a friend and can use any number of tracking apps to quickly pinpoint the exact location of the stolen phone. You bound over to the nearest policeman to report the crime and location, only to be met with a shrug and perhaps a crime reference number.  

For those of you who spend too much time on X, the above story may sound familiar. It tends to do the rounds every couple of months, usually related to a stolen phone, laptop, or bike, and accompanied by a photo of GPS coordinates marking the stolen goods and a rant about ineffectual policing. Some of you may have even experienced this first hand – a consequence of large swathes of petty crime being effectively decriminalised across the capital and other cities.

A warrant is not simply a pesky piece of paper for frustrating police investigations

Has a solution been found? The government – often unfairly accused of having a limited legislative agenda – is lumbering forward with its Criminal Justice Bill, due back in parliament today. Buried within it is a clause that could allow the police to enter a premises to search for and seize stolen goods without a warrant.

A sceptic would question whether this will in fact do anything to combat the staggering rise in mobile phone theft, but surely the more pressing concern is the scale of the assault on our civil liberties. Respect for private property is a cornerstone of British prosperity. A warrant is not simply a pesky piece of paper for frustrating police investigations but a form of protection for the British citizen from the ever-growing intrusive arm of the law. There do, of course, exist circumstances in which the police may enter a premises without a warrant, but these relate to stopping an active and serious crime from taking place or the chasing of a suspect. To allow the police to kick down your door if there are reasonable grounds to believe there’s a stolen iPhone lying around is gross overreach.

While it is all well and good imagining these raids disrupting some two-bit operation on a rundown estate for a few hours, is it so farfetched to believe that these powers could be extended to cover other minor crimes? It isn’t difficult to see how such powers could be reinterpreted in the future as a mandate to break down the doors of licence-fee dodgers, rather than going after criminal gangs. 

Then there are practical flaws. The Home Office’s own impact assessment recognises that GPS isn’t always reliable in built-up urban areas (where the majority of these crimes occur), and an error of five metres may result in the police kicking down the neighbours door instead. When (and it is only a matter of time) someone uploads a clip of their door being broken down by the police by mistake, and there’s a political frenzy about government overreach and the police state, remember that MPs could have stopped this.  

While the tech may get better with time, there’s another sticking point: even if the police are able to go in and retrieve a phone, they can’t always give it straight back to victims. Seized stolen items ‘would not,’ we’re told by the Home Office, ‘be returned to victims quickly’ but bagged and tagged as evidence to support prosecutions. When it comes to choosing between confronting criminals or begging the Met for your personal effects back, how many of us would simply choose the third door and buy a new phone?  

What could be done instead? The government’s main argument for the new powers seems to be expediency, so a place to start would be the warrants themselves. At the moment, police officers are still required to download the correct warrant forms, fill them in, upload and email them to a relevant court centre. In 2020, the Law Commission published a detailed report into reforming the system, including the development of an online portal that would greatly streamline the system for police and judges alike. This would probably also require doing more to tackle the judicial backlog, but it seems preferable to threatening everyone’s liberties in an attempt to tackle minor theft.

Thankfully, some of our MPs feel the same way. During the previous stage of the Bill, a group of cross-party MPs led by David Davis tabled an amendment to strike the clause from the Bill. While it wasn’t selected for debate, it has been retabled for this week’s report stage with a greater number of backers.

The Criminal Justice Bill is a mammoth piece of legislation covering many emotive topics, from abortion limits and extra vetting of police officers to penalties for rough sleepers. Amid the fracas, let us hope that someone puts up a defence of English liberties to curb this overreach.

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