The bill that was approved Tuesday by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee ahead of its second and third, final, vote in the Knesset is at first glance a “game changer” in the war on crime in Israel’s Arab communities.
But in the name of this important goal, committee members are giving the police carte blanche to act as it pleases, without any supervisory authority, and to violate the most fundamental rights of all citizens, beginning with the right to privacy.
In the name of the understandable desire to “raise the clearance rate for crime in Arab society,” in the words of the bill’s sponsor, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the police are aggressively promoting the so-called Search Law. The legislation will expand the list of situations in which police officers can conduct searches in private homes without a court-issued warrant.
Today, the police can conduct a search without a judge’s permission when an offense has been committed, when a resident of the home seeks police help or in pursuit of someone who has escaped arrest or legal custody. The bill, which would be enacted as an 18-month temporary provision, would allow the police to conduct a search without a warrant in order to collect evidence, in particular to seize security cameras.
The bill didn’t arise in a vacuum. The practice of erasing security camera footage of crimes – especially those involving shooting or other violence – has become commonplace in Arab communities.
Often it’s done by the camera’s owner, usually out of fear of being seen as collaborators if the footage is given to or seized by the police. They would rather risk being charged with obstruction of justice than to face vengeance from organized crime groups.
The police have no choice but to wait until they get a court order in order to seize security camera images, during which time critical evidence can be erased.
But instead of investing resources in winning the confidence of the Arab public and convincing it to cooperate, report crimes and aid investigators, the police prefer the easy solution of undermining civil rights.
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A judge weighs a variety of factors before issuing a search warrant, among them the rights of property owners; the police see the right of privacy as interfering with the work. Thus, in the absence of clear procedures under the law that are established from the start, we can only fear that the police will exploit the law to its fullest, and entry into homes will unjustifiably turn into the norm.
It’s not too late to stop the bill from passing in its current form. The police’s claim that “we know how to act prudently” isn’t enough of a guarantee. The police’s power to act without a court order must be kept to the minimum while clear and transparent standards and exacting definitions are established governing situations where they may act, namely those involving the most severe offenses. The bill, as it is currently worded, does not merit support.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.