Passed in the wake of September 11, primarily to fulfil New Zealand's obligations under international law to seek to prevent terrorism, the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 does a hell of a lot less than a lot of people seem to think.
Unlike similarly-themed laws passed in other countries it doesn't create search or arrest powers. It doesn't allow phone tapping. It doesn't allow extended periods of interrogation or lengthy periods of confinement without charge. It doesn't permit the use of secret evidence in terrorism prosecutions, or prohibit the media from discussing what's going on. Nor are there special powers to set up road blocks, or storm school buses.
In New Zealand, terrorism offences are treated the same as other offences. The same presumption of innocence, the same criminal procedure, the same suppression rules and bail laws. Applications for search or interception warrants follow the same procedure whether the offence is against the Terrorism Suppression Act, the Arms Act or the Crimes Act.
So what does it do? Mostly, it's about terrorist financing: creating consequences for people who fund terrorism, and allowing the freezing and seizing of terrorists' assets. For this purpose, it sets up a regime to designate groups and people as terrorists – so that we know whom we can't finance.
It also incorporates other obligations we have under various international conventions. To enact into NZ law obligations under the Bombings Convention (which pre-dates 9/11) it creates offences relating to terrorist bombing. Fulfilling our obligations under the Nuclear Material Convention, and the Plastic Explosives Convention, sees the creation of offences relating to the handling of unmarked plastic explosives, and the misuse or nuclear material.
And incorporating our obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) it creates offences around recruiting and participating in terrorist entities (those designated as such, or which designate themselves as such by carrying out terrorist acts).
None of this is all that controversial, although recently proposed amendments are more alarming from a civil liberties standpoint. Most of the concern with the current law is that in prohibiting the financing of terrorist organisations, and the participation in them, we might severely criminalise support within New Zealand for legitimate protest groups in other countries, or that the powers to designate terrorist organisations might be used to suppress criticism (defining Greenpeace as a terrorist organisation, for example). There are safeguards against these and other issues, but some may be removed by the amendment bill currently awaiting its second reading.
That said, none of these concerns arise in the present case. Any problems with the use of the Terrorism Suppression Act in the present instance arise not from the law itself, but from its application. Just as charging someone with burglary who hasn't actually burgled anyone doesn't show faults with burglary laws, the consideration of charges against individuals under anti-terrorism laws doesn't evidence problems with the law. If, once the details and evidence are public, we can conclude that police reaction was over-the-top, it will be the police who are to blame – and not the law. Naturally, it will be some time before we know one way or the other.
So if those arrested and searched were wanted on Arms Act charges why mention the Terrorism Suppression Act in the search warrant?
Simple – it would be super-dodgy not to mention it.
As a basic rule, everyone in New Zealand has the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. With a number of exceptions irrelevant to this case, this means the police can't search you, or take your stuff, without a warrant. And it means they can't get a warrant without reasonable grounds to believe that they're going to find evidence related to the commission of an offence punishable by imprisonment.
We also don't want our cops going on “fishing” expeditions. So when they apply for a search warrant, we make them specify what offences they think they're going to find evidence of, and the evidence upon which they believe they'll find something useful.
If they're looking for evidence of burglary they have to say so, and they have to convince a judicial officer that they've a reasonable belief they'll find such evidence. They can't base it on a hunch, and they can't use some other charge to get a search warrant to follow up that hunch. If they think you've done some burglaries – but haven't the evidence for a search warrant – they can't use the fact they do have evidence of drug possession to get a warrant to nose around. If they want a warrant for drug possession they can get one, but it will only let them search for, and seize, the drug-related stuff they've listed in the warrant. And if they do use a warrant issued on an unrelated charge to nose around and find evidence of burglaries, there's a fair chance they won't be permitted to use that evidence against you, and you'll get off on one of those technicalities.
So the police listed both the Arms Act and the Terrorism Suppression Act on their search warrant because they were looking for evidence under both, and convinced a judge that they had good reason to suspect they'd find it. They've looked at whatever evidence they've found over the past year, and have formed a reasonable suspicion that offences against the Arms Act and the Terrorism Suppression Act may have been committed. It is possible they'll look at the evidence and conclude that whilst there's some evidence of offending against the Terrorism Suppression Act – at least enough to get a warrant – there isn't enough for them to be confident of success at trial. It's also possible that they've evidence of other crimes obtained over the past year which couldn't (or needn't) be supplemented by physical evidence from a raid, and are preparing to lay these soon.
It's too early to tell, but police will have a tough time establishing breaches of our anti-terror laws. However, that is a topic for another time (or an extended reply in the comments if people really want answers now).