An important reminder that search warrant applications must be precise and officers must disclose material facts.
On 11 July 2018, the High Court quashed search warrants, applied for by Lancashire Police and consequently issued by Preston Magistrates' and Crown Court, for searching residential homes and business premises of individuals suspected of bribery offences. In particular, it was alleged that £1 million was being paid for construction contracts with Nationwide Building Society.
The reason the search warrants were quashed?
In summary, the police had not properly particularised the material they were seeking, and had made an error of fact when making the application.
In relation to the question of particularisation/precision, the Court observed that:
"It cannot be adequate to authorise seizure of all communications, not only between Mr Emms and either of the two Mr Brooks but – as was also encompassed by the wording of the warrant – between Matthew and Martin Brook. That is far too broad given in particular the fact that they are father and son and must have communications about many subjects on a regular, possibly daily basis. Simply to state that all such communications were covered without making any attempt to circumscribe those communications either in terms of their content or in terms of timescale was, in my view, manifestly deficient. It cannot be said that the warrant was sufficiently clear and precise for somebody to whom the warrant was presented to know what they had the right to challenge and what they did not. On the face of the warrant any communication of any kind could be seized but plainly that was not something which could be justified. The same, in my view, goes for the description which referred simply to "financial documentation". That, again, was entirely unlimited both as to the nature of the financial dealings which were intended to be covered and in terms of timescale".
The judgment reiterates the principles that police officers have an explicit duty to disclose all material facts when making ex parte (without notice) search warrant applications. Material facts are those which might reasonably have led a judge considering the application to refusing to grant the warrant.
Importantly, this duty of disclosure includes information which might undermine the police application(s), and also extends to facts that would have been known had proper inquiries had been made by the police.