By Greg Stoiz (Courier Mail, 4 April 2009)
DRUG lords, outlaw bikies and paedophiles are free to ply their evil trades in Queensland after the Supreme Court effectively shut down the state’s top organised crime fighting body.
In a decision that has rocked the Crime and Misconduct commission, one of its key powers has been ruled illegal by the court.
The shock judgement means the CMC can no longer use its blanket powers to hold secret “star chamber” hearings into specific organised crime and paedophilia offences and force witnesses to testify under threat of jail.
Supreme Court Justice Stanley Jones decided this last month when he threw out an application by the CMC to jail a man who refused to answer questions relating to a major drug investigation.
The decision has hamstrung the CMC and potentially opened the floodgates to lawsuits from people who may have been illegally hauled before the secret hearings and jailed.
Alarmed Attorney-General Cameron Dick is seeking urgent legal advice and the CMC has lodged an appeal.
“The decision has had a major impact on the CMC’s crime work,” a CMC spokeswoman told The Courier Mail. “It has significantly limited the CMC’s ability to hold hearings and conduct investigations into organised crime and paedophilia.
“We have lodged an appeal, which is set down to be heard before the Court of Appeal… in June.”
Mr Dick said the CMC had raised its concerns with him this week and the Government would change the law if it had to ensure the commission’s powers.
“I am seeking urgent legal advice on the impact of the judgement,” he said.
“We will not hesitate to take any necessary legislative action to ensure the CMC can continue to conduct its important work in relation to serious criminal activity in Queensland.”
In a severe blow to the CMC, Justice Jones ruled the commission had overstepped its powers in a judgement handed down in Cairns on March 4.
As part of a major investigation codenamed Operation Destiny, the CMC was seeking to have a man, identified only as Witness C, jailed for refusing to answer questions about his knowledge of drug manufacture and distribution and money laundering.
He was hit with contempt proceedings after declining to name who supplied him with 1000 ecstasy tablets, amphetamines, cocaine and cannabis found at a property last August.
His barrister, Joshua Trevino, argued there could be no contempt because the hearing was not authorised.
This was because the CMC had avoided legislative checks and balances on its powers by not first referring the drug investigation to an oversight group, known as the Crime Reference Committee. The six-member committee includes CMC chairman Robert Needham, Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson and community representatives.
In his judgement, Justice Jones concluded the CMC had instead wrongly used its umbrella powers – known as the Freshnet Reference – to launch Operation Destiny without ensuring the investigation was in the public interest.
Judge Jones found the CRC’s supervision had been “circumvented” and the commission’s “exceptional” powers “were not validly invoked”.
Prominent Gold Coast criminal lawyer Bill Potts said the CMC had been left “in limbo” because of the Government’s failure to give it proper legislative teeth.
“The CMC was given the powers of a permanent royal commission, including the power to override people’s right to remain silent and to not incriminate themselves,” he said.
“But the commission is also a creature of statute, and the Government has allowed it to act without giving it proper legislative backing.”