Opposition Senator Wilfred Abrahams gave general support to amendments to the 1962 Customs Act when the matter came before the Upper House for consideration yesterday, but at the same time expressed strong objection to ‘absolute power’ being granted to the Comptroller of Customs.
Speaking on the Bill to amend the Customs Act to authorize the Comptroller to undertake post-clearance audits, Abrahams singled Section 180 f of the amendments that gives the Comptroller the power to authorize an officer to enter and search a private premises and documents based on ‘reasonable grounds’ of suspicions of an illegal import-related activity.
On this provision, he said: “I entirely agree that it is necessary to allow the Comptroller of Customs to be (able) to trace goods”. He further said that if there were reports or suspicion of under-reporting or false-invoicing by an importer, “then I do believe that the Comptroller of Customs should have the authority to go and check further. It is a necessary authority”.
He said the term ‘reasonable grounds’ for search and seizure, “carries its weight in gold”.
The attorney added: “However, I do not believe in the absolute authority of anybody or anything”. He pointed to the specific section of the legislation, which states, “An officer authorised by the Comptroller by day or by night may enter into and search any house, shop, cellar, warehouse, room, or other place, and inspect and search the premises as well as any goods, books and documents found therein, whether the books are in manual or electronic format”.
Abrahams argued: “That gives the Comptroller or his agents the authority to search anywhere for anything without having the requirement of reasonable grounds. Our whole system of law is predicated on reasonable grounds.”
It is unfathomable to me and unacceptable in the extreme that any governmental authority can come and search my premises, or somebody else’s premises without having to pass the minimal standard of reasonable grounds.”
He noted that in criminal matters there was protection of citizens because the police need a warrant, signed by a magistrate, before searching private property, unless they witness a crime being committed.
“I do not believe that the Comptroller of Customs should have any more authority than the Commissioner of Police.”
Regarding such proposed powers of the Comptroller, he said, “I do believe a fetter should be on that. It should not be an absolute discretion . . . the Comptroller of Customs should have to satisfy some other person, or obtain a warrant”.