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Debate over Police Search Powers

The broad powers enjoyed by Finnish police to carry out searches of homes are coming under fire. In Finland, police can decide when and where searches are carried out. Elsewhere in Europe police need a search warrant from a judge or a public prosecutor.

Poliisi nousee poliisiautosta.
Image: YLE

Police in Finland carry out around 14,000 searches of homes a year. By European standards, the procedure is unusual in that police officials themselves issue search warrants.

Critics: too much power

Markku Fredman, a lawyer known for his work in human rights cases, considers the situation in Finland as odd.

"Here, a decision on carrying out a search is made by a police inspector or higher ranking police officer. No one can even question afterwards in court if there was actually reasonable cause for a search or not," explains Fredman. "Elsewhere in Europe, the assumption is that ultimately these kinds of things are decided by a court."

Jacob Söderman, an MP who has been the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the EU's European Ombudsman agrees that the policy is too slack.

"The police administration is used to a relatively easy and unofficial search procedure. The threshold for searches should absolutely be raised," says Söderman. "Since they are used to it, the threshold is too low, searches are carried out too often."

Police: more bureaucracy won't help

National Police Commissioner Mikko Paatero is afraid that shifting decisions on search warrants to the courts would only increase bureaucracy.

"If the courts were included in decision making, what would happen to the percentage of crimes solved? At least it would not get better than it is," argues Paatero.

Paatero admits that excesses do occur. Police have even been known to show up at the wrong door.

"There are bound to have been isolated incidents, it is useless to deny it. Police are people, too. However, I believe that with training and supervision, any problems will remain under control," says Police Commissioner Mikko Paatero.

Parliament is currently reviewing a package of legislation that will revise police powers. The draft under consideration provides for no change in the independent position of police in issuing search warrants.

"It should be changed so that in non-urgent cases, a court would issue a search warrant and in urgent cases, the legality of searches would evaluated afterwards by a court," says Markku Fredman

With his long experience of overseeing law enforcement, Jacob Söderman emphasizes the basic issues involved.

"What is most important is who issues the search warrant and on what basis. Even the police have to have a clear threshold before them. It must be understood that no one may barge into another's home just like that."

National Police Commissioner Mikko Paatero is willing to wait and see.

"It is the politicians' job now to see what is most important."

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