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News - 24 April 2008
Council uses Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to catch underage drinkers
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Staffordshire County Council used RIPA legislation, originally aimed at countering terrorism, to carry out 'direct surveillance' 51 times over the last three years.
Trading Standards officers secretly filmed underage kids smoking and drinking during some of the investigations - and used informants to identify rogue shopkeepers who sold them the fags and booze. The council used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) originally designed to prevent terrorism and serious crimes. Other Staffordshire surveillance cases involved monitoring the movement of farm animals and targeting people cashing in on bootleg DVD sales.
Staffordshire County Council's Fraud and Community Safety Manager, Brandon Cooke, defended the operations which he said were crucial for combatting anti-social behaviour. RIPA was used 16 times to obtain telephone and e-mail records of suspects. Mr Cooke said the RIPA powers were being used correctly by Trading Standards officers. "People's lives are blighted by anti-social behaviour and criminality which centres around drinking. I would not consider sales of a poisonous substance to a minor a petty offence.
"One of the issues around alcohol is that generally the public regard people drinking before they are 18 as the norm, a right of passage into the adult world. But that is where our culture needs to change. We need these powers to investigate these sales and to prevent the unruly behaviour that can result from them.
"In some cases, we receive intelligence about youths sending an adult as a proxy into off-licences to buy alcohol on their behalf. In a recent case we filmed a crowd of underage youths drinking outside one store. When they finished their supplies they got straight onto the phone to an adult who came down and bought them more. There are exceptional circumstances where our undercover investigators will need to develop a relationship with a shop owner in order to find out if they are committing a crime.
"One instance that comes to mind is where we learnt of a store that had sold excessive amounts of glue to a minor who died from overdosing on it. In such circumstances the investigator would need to visit the shop repeatedly to purchase glue and make himself known to the vendor, who should be aware that this is suspicious".
A spokeswoman for Staffordshire County Council said: "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is used to regulate investigation measures the council uses when investigating a crime where the authority has a statutory duty of enforcement, eg, breaches of trading standards regulations or animal health regulations."
For the rest of this story from the Birmingham Sunday Mercury, click here.
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