Gov’t weighs giving police power to close investigations

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Gov’t weighs giving police power to close investigations

The Moon Jae-in administration is pushing to strengthen police power by allowing law enforcement the ability to open and close investigations, thus curbing prosecutorial authorities, a ruling party lawmaker said Tuesday.

In an exclusive interview, Democratic Rep. Park Beom-kye discussed the plan to realign investigative powers between police and the prosecution.

“The police currently have the right to begin and conduct investigations,” said Park. “Whether they will have the right to close investigations is the key. We concluded that police should be allowed, up to a certain degree, to do so.”

Although the current Criminal Procedure Act allowed police the right to open and proceed with investigations, police cannot currently end a probe without a prosecutor’s permission. Only prosecutors have the right to seek court warrants for physical detention, search and seizures, and arrests.

Park is a former judge and second-term lawmaker who served in the state affairs advisory committee for Moon.He is also the ruling party’s chief negotiator in the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee and is involved in the Moon administration’s plan to reform the prosecution.

Redistributing investigative authority between police and prosecutors was one of Moon’s presidential pledges and one of the 100 points in the agenda Moon announced last month, but it is the first time that a specific plan has been revealed.

The government and the ruling party will soon establish a consultative panel to discuss the issue under the National Assembly or the Prime Minister’s Office.

“It is up to the president where to establish the panel,” Park said. “But we have reached a consensus that the task should not be handed over to the prosecution or the police.”

“After the police close an investigation, a prosecutor will take over the case, make a decision to indict a suspect and argue the case throughout trial,” he said.

“We are still discussing whether the prosecution should conduct an additional investigation or order police to conduct an additional investigation, when the prosecution thinks the police probe has some shortcomings.”

He continued, “The state affairs advisory committee believes that the prosecutors should be granted the right to conduct additional probes, if necessary.”

“Allowing police the right to close an investigation means the prosecution can only decide whether to indict a suspect after the prosecution ends its probe,” said Lee Chang-won, a professor of public administration at Hansung University, explaining that police will therefore have the initiative in an investigation, not the prosecution.

“Prosecutors will no longer have power over police in an investigation,” said Yim Dong-wook, a professor of public administration at the Korea National University of Transportation.

“The prosecutors will have to request that police open and close an investigation. In the past, the prosecution was higher in the hierarchy, but now they will have a more equal relationship.”

But, Park said, there could be some exceptions. “The prosecution, including Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il, thinks some high-profile cases still require their direct investigation,” he said.

As of now, the police handle 98 percent of all cases, while the prosecution handles the rest. Normally, high-profile cases - such as those involving corruption, abuse of power and influence-peddling involving top officials, politicians and tycoons - are directly investigated by prosecutors.

“We also need to think about separating judicial police from administrative police,” Park said. “How we should organize judicial police also needs consideration.”

Experts say the change must be taken with care. “The prosecution has been criticized for having unnecessarily strong authority, but a similar criticism can be made if police are given the right to end an investigation,” said Chang Young-soo, professor of law at Korea University.

“We need a mechanism to check on cases that are investigated and dismissed by police. We also need to approach the realignment of investigative powers by taking baby steps.”

The police welcome the planned change. “Because we have no right to close an investigation, many cases were often investigated with lukewarm attitudes and handed over to the prosecution,” said a senior police official. “When we have that right, we will investigate with more responsibility.”

But the prosecution is expected to oppose the move. In a written statement to the National Assembly for his confirmation hearing, Prosecutor General Moon made clear his opposition to the move.

“A judge cannot rule without a trial,” he wrote at the time. “And a prosecutor cannot decide whether to indict a suspect or not without an investigation.”

To allow police the right to close investigations, the Criminal Procedure Act must be revised. A bill has already been submitted by the National Assembly. The last revision to the act was made in 2011, allowing police the right to open and proceed with investigations.

BY PARK SEONG-HUN, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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