police officers in the Express editorial department

FLASHBACK: Some of the police officers in the Express editorial department before the search commenced. 

OFFICERS of the Financial Investigations Branch (FIB) of the Police Service committed an illegality and breached the Constitutional rights of the Trinidad Express when it executed two search warrants at the media house last March.

The High Court on Wednesday ordered that the State pay compensatory damages to the company as well as its legal cost. The quantum of damages to be paid is to be determined by a High Court Master on a date that is yet to be set.

Delivering the ruling was Justice Frank Seepersad who presided over the claim brought by the newspaper against the Offices of the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police and Supt Wendell Lucas, head of the FIB.

In his ruling, Justice Seepersad said on the face of the two warrants, there were “evident errors” that were not identified by the Justice of the Peace that granted them.

Justices of the Peace he said were not required to undergo any legal training and for this reason, he believed there should be amendments to the relevant laws to allow magistrates of judges to be involved in the granting of such warrants.

The warrants were executed on March 10 as investigators sought information as to who exactly provided information to investigative journalist Denyse Renne on an investigation that was taking place against Assistant Commissioner of Police Irwin Hackshaw over questionable bank transactions between 2014 and 2017.

Following the publication of Renne’s article, Lucas lead a team of officers into Express House at Independence Square, Port of Spain, seeking the source of the information. During that process, they also seized four flash drives from the office of the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Omatie Lyder.

Justice Seepersad also found the seizure of the items to be unconstitutional.

“In a sovereign democratic state, the effecting of a search warrant upon a media house should be viewed from the perspective of increased and heightened significance as the implication and reach of such action, cannot be equated to a situation where a search warrant is executed upon a private citizen given that any unjustified interference with press freedom can have a retrograde, reverberating and recessive impact upon the society as a whole,” stated the judge.

He said in a democracy, the power to search the private space of a citizen is an exceptional intrusive power, a power which should be exercised only when the necessitating conditions are clear, certain and connected to an ascertainable offence.

“There were evident errors on the face of the warrants which would be hereinafter identified and addressed and these errors were seemingly not detected by the Justice of the Peace. Given that there is currently no requirement for Justices of the Peace to be legally trained, they may generally lack the degree of specialisation required to equip and empower them to deal with important constitutional issues and the law should be reviewed so as to mandate the involvement of a Magistrate or a Judge,” he stated.

Appearing alongside Chote were attorneys Peter Carter and Vani Seunath while Rishi Dass appeared with Hosein for the State. The MATT was represented by attorneys Ria Davidson and Michael Rooplal.

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