Israeli Police Seek Wider Powers to Search Houses, Confiscate CCTV Without Warrants

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An Israeli police man enters a crime scene in Haifa, in March.
An Israeli police man enters a crime scene in Haifa, in March. Credit: rami shllush

The Justice Ministry is advancing a bill that would allow the police to confiscate footage from security cameras without a court order, saying they need wider enforcement powers to battle soaring crime rates in Arab communities.

The police claim that in Arab communities security camera footage documenting criminal activity is often erased before police can obtain a court order.

The bill, which the ministry is advancing at the police’s request, would also expand the conditions under which police officers can enter a home or other building without a search warrant.

The law currently permits the police to enter and search a building if they have a reason to believe that a crime was committed there, the owner has asked for police assistance, there is reason to believe a crime is being committed there or if a person fleeing the police has entered the building.

The bill being advanced by the ministry would allow a police officer to enter a building without a search warrant if “there’s a reasonable suspicion that there’s an object in that place connected to a serious crime that could serve as evidence of commission of that crime, and the search must take place immediately to prevent the evidence from being removed or damaged.” The bill defines “serious crime” as one carrying a sentence of at least 10 years.

“In recent years there has been an increase in crime in Arab community and it is exacting a heavy price in human life of those involved and of innocents,” the bill’s explanatory notes say, citing as examples shootings, blackmail and weapons sales. “The proposed amendment is aimed at giving the police tools that will allow it to seize evidence without a warrant when there’s a concern that the evidence will disappear or be tampered with, in a manner that will lead to a rise in solving serious crimes and prosecutions, as well as a rise in the scope of the weapons confiscated, so as to deter criminals from committing crimes.”

The notes added that “In many cases of serious crime in Arab society, the police have difficulty getting cooperation in collecting evidence and testimonies from the field. The primary difficulty in locating criminal suspects stems from evidence tampering by interested parties, such as erasing video information from cameras installed at the location of the crime but on private property, like businesses and yards, or their [the cameras’] removal. Many times these cameras have documented the criminal incident being investigated or evidence that could be of great help in advancing the investigation. These actions take place primarily when there’s a connection between the camera owners and the criminals, but there are also cases of camera owners being afraid to provide the evidence or to cooperate with law enforcement, because they are liable to find themselves threatened by criminal elements immediately after the event.”

Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights – said he feared the bill would be employed unnecessarily and inappropriately.

“The police’s enforcement powers are very broad, as expressed by the erecting of checkpoints in villages based on their judgment. We have seen how this has undermined the rights of Arab citizens,” he said. “Violence in Arab society can be eradicated with the powers the police have now; we saw this when they dealt with crime organizations in Jewish society. This is enforcement based on ethnic background. The ramifications of the bill must be examined, especially since it will be enforced against Arab citizens.”

Thabet Abu Rass, the co-executive director of Abraham Initiatives, said that all the possible consequences of the bill must be carefully examined and called for it to be applied fairly.

“It is indeed the police’s job to work to enforce and focus attention on acts of crime and violence, but we must examine what it means to broaden the powers of the police and the long-term consequences of using an enforcement tool without oversight, like conducting a search without a search warrant,” he said.

“Searches must be conducted in oversight, because there’s a question here of balance, how we can assure that this type of enforcement is used fairly. Citizens’ rights could be undermined in the long term.”

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