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Police caught red-handed

Carly Crawford / Australia Herald Sun | September 4 2006

THE fingerprints of up to half a million innocent Victorians have been retained illegally by Victoria Police.

Senior police have warned the scandal could expose the force to a fine totalling millions of dollars.
Leaked documents, seen by the Sunday Herald Sun, reveal it could take police two decades to clear a backlog of hundreds of thousands of fingerprint sets.

The documents blame a staff shortage for the dilemma.

"There are a number of fingerprints on the database that should have been destroyed and this represents a risk to the Chief Commissioner through contravention of the Crimes Act," the documents state.

Under the Act, fingerprints must be destroyed within six months if they do not give rise to criminal charges, although police may apply to the courts for an extension.

Failure to destroy a set of prints carries a fine of up to $1000.

The State Opposition estimates that between 400,000 and 500,000 fingerprints that should have been destroyed remain on file with Victoria Police.

Opposition police spokesman Kim Wells said: "The Victoria Police is an organisation you would expect to abide by the law, so I'm gobsmacked by this."

The documents say that specialist forensic officers have been called in to help clear the backlog, raising fears that progress on major criminal investigations has suffered.

Victoria Police has allocated two extra staff members to help tackle the problem.

A police spokesman said: "It is about priorities. Our main one is processing forensic evidence to get criminals off our streets.

"A strategy is in place to rectify the situation. We take our legislative responsibilities very seriously."

A spokesperson for Police Minister Tim Holding said: "The Bracks Government expects Victoria Police to comply with all elements of the legisla-

tion regarding fingerprint destruction."

The documents say measures are in place to stop the prints, which date back as far as 1994, being used.

Det-Supt Paul Sheridan backs warnings from the Forensic Services Department's Fingerprint Branch manager that the Chief Commissioner is breaking the law.

"I reiterate the comments . . . that the Chief Commissioner is in contravention of the Crimes Act and could be subject to penalty," he says in the documents.

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