Bill granting house searches without a warrant can be dangerous - editorial

A bill was passed on Sunday that allows law enforcement to carry out house searches without a warrant.

 Israel Police carry out raids to confiscate illegal weapons and arrest the people holding them (photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Israel Police carry out raids to confiscate illegal weapons and arrest the people holding them

The cabinet on Sunday approved Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s proposal to advance a controversial bill granting police the authority to search the homes of criminal suspects without a court-issued warrant. While we understand the motivation for the move – particularly in the Arab sector where some 100 people have been murdered since the start of the year – we urge the government, the Knesset and law-enforcement agencies to tread carefully.

It is essential that while safeguarding all its citizens, Israel must continue to adhere to the principles of a democratic country and not violate anyone’s fundamental right to privacy in their own homes – and there is no greater violation of civil liberties than entering someone’s home without just cause or a warrant.

The Knesset will soon be asked to vote on Sa’ar’s legislation, which will be expedited after its approval by the cabinet. It should be noted that Israeli law already enables police to conduct searches in homes without a warrant if, inter alia, they have grounds to believe that a crime is being committed there. Sa’ar’s bill would give police the additional authority to enter homes to gather evidence related to “serious crimes” when they suspect it could be destroyed. As Jerusalem Post correspondent Gil Hoffman reported, officers would be allowed to search for suspects and weapons if they have good reason to believe that they are present.

“We are at war,” Sa’ar declared, saying he would propose more laws to fight crime, particularly in the Arab community. “We need to give the police and local authorities better tools to help them succeed in their mission.

In supporting Sa’ar’s initiative, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett emphasized the dire situation in Arab communities, warning the cabinet that “we are losing the country.” Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), on the other hand, spoke out against the legislation, saying that it was rare in a democracy to give the police such powers. Likud MK Shlomo Karhi slammed the proposal from the Right, saying that instead of trying to trick the public, Sa’ar should ensure that the courts stop allowing criminals to go free.

 Gideon Sa'ar (credit:  Rami Zernger) Gideon Sa'ar (credit: Rami Zernger)

Arab officials have been skeptical of Sa’ar’s bill since he first proposed it last month, claiming that it could lead to police abuse, as well as constituting a violation of civil liberties and being a form of collective punishment. 

The Palestinian legal aid group Adalah called it “inappropriate and unjustified,” saying in a statement that existing legislation gives the police enough authority to get the job done and that asking for expanded powers “only when it comes to the Arab community amounts to racial profiling in law enforcement.”

Police officers, on the other hand, have complained for years that in the time that it takes for them to receive court orders, perpetrators can abscond with the evidence or destroy the security camera footage that could implicate them. Still, entering private homes without a warrant is an extreme measure that must be backed up by solid evidence.

The Bennett government, with the support of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party in the coalition, has justifiably made the battle against Arab crime a top priority. Earlier this month, cabinet ministers approved a controversial move to enlist the Shin Bet security agency, which has in the past focused on operating against Palestinian terrorists, to curb the rising violence in the Arab community. In an effort to stiffen penalties for illegal arms possession, the Justice Ministry unveiled a bill on Friday to raise the maximum sentence from three to five years in prison.

Although the police must be given all the legal power and means of enforcement necessary to crack down on violent crime, especially in light of the growing murder rate in the Arab sector, we call on all parties concerned to ensure that Sa’ar’s legislation is implemented under strict civilian oversight and clear guidelines. The police need to consult with legal advisers, and civilians need an efficient way to be able to file a complaint in the event that their homes are searched without legitimate grounds.

The police are the watchdog of all Israelis, but they too need supervision, as befits a democratic society that cares about the rule of law – as well as our rights to privacy in our own homes.