No warrant needed: Extraordinary search powers to tackle terrorism, shootings in Victoria

VICTORIA Police is set to gain extraordinary powers to tackle terrorism and gun crime, with laws allowing officers to search suspects without a warrant.

The Chief Commissioner, at his discretion, will be able to impose an order on a person that means they, as well as their cars and property, can be searched at any time.

Guns seized in an international operation that ended in Melbourne last year. Photo: Penny Stephens

Guns seized in an international operation that ended in Melbourne last year. Photo: Penny Stephens

Known as firearm prohibition orders, the conditions could be placed on someone as young as 14 if the Chief Commissioner believes it is in the public interest. An order can be granted even if the suspect does not a have a prior conviction.

The types of people who might qualify include those exhibiting radicalised behaviour, as well as bikies, organised crime figures and young gang members, Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said.

Firearm prohibition orders were introduced in NSW four years ago and are partly credited for a dramatic drop in gun offences after a wave of drive-by shootings.

"We think this is going to be a real game-changer in addressing serious and organised crime and terrorism, Middle Eastern organised crime figures and outlaw motorcycle gangs," Mr Patton said. "It's going to give us significant powers."

Police won't need to form a reasonable belief an offence is being committed, which is required under the current Firearms Act provision, only that they suspect a target has a gun or weapon.

If officers find drugs or evidence of other crimes during a firearms search, they will be able to prosecute those involved.

Police at the scene of a drive-by at a home in Thomastown where a 54-year-old-father was killed in a suspected case of mistaken identity. Photo: Joe Armao

Police at the scene of a drive-by at a home in Thomastown where a 54-year-old-father was killed in a suspected case of mistaken identity. Photo: Joe Armao

The policy shift comes after rising fears of further terror attacks and as new Crime Statistics Agency figures show armed crime – such as robberies and burglaries where a gun is used – is up 20 per cent from a decade ago.

More than 125 people – mostly young men – have been wounded in shootings in the past five years, a 40 per cent increase on the previous five years.

It is not just criminals being shot, with numerous cases of bungling gunmen shooting at the wrong house, terrifying residents and, in two recent cases, killing two potentially innocent men.

The rise has been spurred by the availability of weapons and a thriving gun culture in which aspiring gangsters use guns to settle trivial disputes.

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, pictured with Premier Daniel Andrews, says the new powers are a game-changer.  Photo: Justin McManus

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, pictured with Premier Daniel Andrews, says the new powers are a game-changer. Photo: Justin McManus

Mr Patton said police expected firearm prohibition orders, coupled with previously announced drive-by laws and more police officers in the new anti-gangs squad, would reduce the violence.

"This isn't about law-abiding citizens who have firearms licences; this is about people who are a risk to the community," Mr Patton said.

An order could even be placed on someone who turns up at a hospital with a gunshot wound and refuses to talk to police – as has often been the case in Melbourne in recent years.

"We look at their prior convictions and involvement in shooting incidents and we then issue them with [a firearm prohibition order] if we suspect they're involved in organised crime," Mr Patton said.

"Suddenly we've got options to search their vehicle, their premises, a whole range of things."

People issued with an order will have the right to appeal to the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal, but in some cases they may never know why they are placed on an order if the decision was based on protected police intelligence.

Orders will last for up to a decade for adults and five years for youths, but Mr Patton said a person could appeal halfway through if they could show a change in circumstances.

The scene in Moonee Ponds where an officer was shot in the head by criminals trying to flee police in 2015. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The scene in Moonee Ponds where an officer was shot in the head by criminals trying to flee police in 2015. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission will have oversight under the proposal.

"VCAT is a fallback position to provide public assurance the powers are used properly, as well as a proposal in the legislation that there's an inspection and auditing regime put in place," Mr Patton said.

The government is expected to put a bill before Parliament in the next few months.

"The Andrews Labor government will create a new firearms prohibition order that will give police the power to prevent people from accessing firearms who pose a threat or risk to public safety," Police Minister Lisa Neville said.

An Ombudsman review of the powers in NSW found police had conducted more than 2500 searches in almost two years between 2013 and 2015, finding 35 guns.

More than 60 per cent of people were searched only once, 13 per cent twice and six were searched 20 or more times.  

The searches were generally consistent with the law's intention, the review found, but some may have been unlawful and based on a misunderstanding about the scope of the search powers.

The Ombudsman recommended increases in the power, saying police should be able to search associates who are inside the homes of someone on an order if they suspect they could have a gun.

 – The Age

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