FBI-style crime unit to bring gangland bosses to justice

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The Independent Online

A new national crime agency, similar in some respects to the FBI in America, will have sweeping powers to help police tackle gangland bosses found to be "untouchable" under current law.

New laws under consideration could see the lowering of the burden of proof, greater use of eavesdropping devices, the expansion of judge-only trials, enhanced witness protection and tougher penalties.

Ministers and police chiefs are becoming increasingly frustrated that crime bosses are able to escape prosecution by intimidating witnesses and avoiding direct involvement in the crimes.

As part of the drive against organised crimes such as drug dealing, human trafficking, fraud, gun running, and money laundering, the Home Office confirmed yesterday that it was setting up a new national force of about 5,000 officers.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) will incorporate the existing National Crime Squad (NCS) and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), as well as taking over the investigative divisions of Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service. MI5 agents who currently work with NCIS and the NCS's high-tech crime unit will join the agency.

Teams of senior prosecutors from the Crown Prosecution Service will be created, similar to the anti-racketeering federal attorneys in the United States. The agency is expected to be in operation by 2006.

Details of how the agency will operate are due to be published next month along with proposals for new powers to tackle organised crime. Among the reforms could be a controversial proposal to lower the balance of proof from the criminal "beyond reasonable doubt" to the civil "on the balance of probabilities" test for certain types of organised crime.

Tony Blair hinted at the proposals while announcing plans for the new agency yesterday. He said: "My impression sometimes is that the system is struggling against a presumption that you treat these crimes like every other type of crime and that you build up cases beyond reasonable doubt. I think we have got to look at this."

A Home Office source added: "The feeling is that the various agencies know who the organised crime bosses are - so why are these people escaping justice?"

Mr Blair also appeared to suggest that criminals might be required to explain how they had accumulated their wealth. "If you think, 'Yes, there's something bad going on', you can change the burden of proof so that people can say, 'This is how we came by it'. To require everything beyond reasonable doubt in these cases is very difficult," he said.

Mr Blair also raised the issue of allowing evidence gained from telephone intercepts, which some law enforcers oppose because of the risk that their techniques will be exposed.

A recruitment agency has been hired to draw up a list of candidates to head the agency. Among those already tipped is Bill Bratton, the former New York police chief, and current head of the Los Angeles force.

The plan will be extremely controversial and will be opposed by civil liberty groups.

The possible move to lower the burden of proof reflects a similar idea floated by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for terrorism cases.