When a crime of a serious nature has been committed in Ireland, the Gardai (Irish police force) will usually need to seal off the area where the crime was committed. This is normally done to preserve the scene in order to allow for a detailed forensic examination to be undertaken.
The examination of the crime scene is vital for the Gardai because evidence can be gathered which will assist them in their efforts in solving the crime. Until the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 the Gardai had no legal authority to seal-off an area and relied on the goodwill of property owners to allow them examine a crime scene.
Part 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 (Investigation of Offences) now gives the Gardai the legal authority to designate any place a crime scene.
When a Garda is in a public place (or anywhere else they are invited to, or permitted to be) and they have reasonable grounds for believing that an arrestable offence was or may have been committed, they may take the following steps in order to preserve evidence;
• Seal-off the area of the crime scene by means of notices, markings or barriers
• Direct someone to leave the crime scene
• Remove someone who fails to comply with his/her direction to leave the crime scene
• Direct someone not to enter the crime scene
• Permit any authorised person to enter the crime scene
• Prevent someone from removing anything that is (or may be) evidence
• Prevent someone from interfering with the crime scene or anything at the scene
• Secure the crime scene from any unauthorised intrusion or disturbance
• Search the crime scene and examine the scene and anything at the scene
• Photograph or otherwise record the crime scene or anything at the crime scene.
All of these powers are only available to the Gardai while they wait on direction from a member of the Gardai not below the rank of Superintendent. So for example, if a Garda comes upon the scene of a serious crime they have the powers set out above immediately. They must as soon as possible, request a direction from the Superintendent to designate the scene a crime scene. The immediate power is given to the Garda to ensure vital evidence is not lost at the scene while waiting for a direction from the Superintendent.
A direction given by a Superintendent officially designates a place as a crime scene. This direction lasts for 24 hours from the time it is given, if it applies to privately owned property and places. If the crime scene is in a public place, it is not subject to any time limit.
The direction from the Superintendent can be given orally but must be recorded in writing as soon as possible. The written record must contain:
• A description of the place designated a crime-scene
• The date and time it was given
• The name and rank of the member of the police giving it
• The grounds for believing that the direction is necessary.
What happens when the 24 hour expires and the Gardai are still examining the scene?
There are two options in this situation. The Gardai can apply to the District Court for an order to continue the direction for a further period of 48 hours. They may do this three times. The District Court has the power therefore to order a direction to remain in force for a total of six days. The Superintendent who applies to the District Court must satisfy the Judge that;
• A direction designating a place as a crime scene is in force
• There are reasonable grounds for believing that there is, or may be, evidence at the crime scene
• The continuance of the direction is necessary to preserve, search for and collect any such evidence
• The investigation of the offence to which any such evidence relates is being conducted diligently and speedily.
The second option for the Gardai is to apply to the High Court for an extension of time designating a place as a crime scene. The same criteria or rules as set out in the application to the District Court must be present but with one extra condition; that exceptional circumstances exist. The High Court may make an order for any such period as it considers appropriate. The period will be specified in the order.
If my home, business premises or property is designated a crime scene do I have any rights?
Yes. Before the Gardai apply to the court for an extension of time designating a place as a crime scene they are obliged to give you (the owner or occupier of the property), notice of their intention to apply to the court. This will give you the opportunity to object (if you so wish), to the order. Although it is unlikely that a court would refuse to grant the order, it is very likely that it would attach certain conditions to the order. That is, conditions for the purpose of protecting your interests as the owner or occupier of the place which is designated the crime scene.
Penalties and offences relating to crime scenes
When somewhere has been designated as a crime scene, the Gardai have absolute control of that place. It is an offence to obstruct a Garda in exercising their powers or fail to comply with the directions of a Garda. You may be liable to a fine not exceeding 3,000 euro, or imprisonment for up to 6 months or both.
If the Gardai reasonably suspect you of committing or having committed an offence relating to a crime scene, you may be arrested without a warrant.
For more detailed information you should seek legal advice.