The return of the bags, which are filled with assorted currencies, will be just another setback in a chronicle of frustration which illustrates why ministers last week announced new powers to seize criminals' assets without any need for criminal convictions.
The cash was found in the garden of Philip Glennon's comfortable home in West Derby, Liverpool. Police later told a court that he was the head of a notorious crime family which had amassed a fortune from drug-dealing. Mr Glennon, 60, was charged, pleaded not guilty, but never stood trial.
Dutch police had eavesdropped on telephone conversations in which he allegedly arranged to bribe a senior policeman. The officer, Detective Chief Inspector Elmore Davies, was convicted and jailed for five years in September. But the judge ruled that it would be unfair for Mr Glennon to stand trial because of procedural errors British police made in obtaining permission to use the Dutch phone intercepts.
The judgment outraged prosecutors who will this month decide whether to make a new application to the Dutch courts. If they try again, Mr Glennon could still stand trial - the case against him was frozen, not dismissed. But Mr Glennon wants his plastic bags back, especially if there is no renewed prosecution. He also wants compensation for the damage to his garden caused by the police and their sniffer dogs.
"We have considered the option of issuing a summons for the return of the money," Andrew Pearson, Mr Glennon's solicitor, said. "We are just a bit puzzled; there should not be a need for any proceedings. Any property should be returned to a defendant if he hasn't been convicted."
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, wants to extend powers to seize criminals' assets which depend at present on criminal convictions. A National Confiscation Agency will use the civil courts to prove on the balance of probabilities that cash and property had been "earned" illegally.
The agency will be modelled on the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), which last week froze the assets of Eamonn Hargan, 32, after his conviction or heroin dealing. In collecting more than pounds 15m for the Irish government since it was established two years ago, the Bureau has hit suspected drug traffickers with tax demands and siphoned off most of their cash. In a typical pre-emptive strike, the Bureau shut down a Donegal bar owned by suspected Glaswegian criminals. Six bank accounts containing a total of pounds 200,000 were seized.
But in Merseyside last week, police and solicitors were sceptical about how effective a British criminal assets bureau would prove. Detective Inspector Susan Harrop was in Liverpool, leading a 20-member team of National Crime Squad detectives investigating money-laundering operations. Sources close to the inquiry said the trail was proving "difficult to follow". Without detailed knowledge of money-laundering operations, seizure would be impossible. Also in town were Customs officers tracing the assets of Curtis Warren on behalf of the Dutch authorities who last year jailed him for 12 years for drug-running.
Warren, a 35-year-old Liverpudlian, is the most formidable British criminal, formerly Interpol's Number One target. His personal fortune is estimated at pounds 180m. A single consignment of cocaine imported by one of his consortia was valued at pounds 260m. And Warren, the court heard, was a close associate of Mr Glennon. More than a year of intensive investigation has failed to locate Warren's principal investments, rumoured to be a broad portfolio stretching from Bulgaria to Birkenhead and from liquid cash to wineries.
Liverpool detectives and lawyers believe Mr Straw should switch his attention away from confiscation measures. Instead, he should reform existing laws and break the monopoly of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to "privatise" prosecution of organised crime. The effect would be to bring more charges against more criminals with more chances of convictions. Police should be able to turn to specialist firms of criminal lawyers, said Peter Quinn, who represented defendants in the Davies-Glennon case.
"In many complex cases, the CPS acts for the most part as nothing better than a post-box," Mr Quinn said. "The police send the CPS the evidence which is then sent on to the barristers. There is a massive hole in the prosecution system in large-scale cases. Better and more detailed preparation of prosecutions would lead to more convictions. By the time a CPS lawyer is able to turn their attention to a problem in a case, it's generally too late. But solicitors representing a defendant will spend hundreds if not thousands of hours on a complex case before it reaches their barristers. I believe firms like ours would be happy to take on prosecutions for the same fees we earn from defendants on legal aid."
Defence lawyers in the Davies-Glennon case agreed with police that law on telephone intercepts needed reform. Mobile telephones and pagers have revolutionised drug-dealing but the Interception of Communications Act forbids the use in evidence of phone intercepts. "I can see no reason why a phone call made on a public telephone system should not be used in evidence when it is perfectly legal to bug a citizen's home," one defence barrister said.Reuse content