Hong Kong’s High Court has dismissed a legal bid to challenge the police power to seize and search mobile phones with warrants. Warrants were issued against five democrats following their arrests in April, but their judicial review on the matter was rejected last Thursday.
The applicants included Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy” Martin Lee, former chairmen of the Democratic Party Albert Ho and Yeung Sum, and ex-lawmakers Sin Chung-kai and Au Nok-hin.
The five were among 15 high profile pro-democracy figures arrested on April 18 for alleged instances of knowingly inciting, organising, and participating in unauthorised assemblies during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations between August and October last year.
The police issued search warrants “permitting search and seizure of information and data stored in mobile digital devices” on June 26 – over two months after their initial arrests.
The five alleged that the warrants to search their mobile phones were unconstitutional, citing the “arbitrariness,” “disproportionality,” and “unreasonableness” of warrants issued with months of delay that would allow police access to “all digital contents” of their phones, with no clear limits.
The court dismissed the arguments, stating amongst other reasons in its ruling that the police were “clearly bound… to adhere to the rule that the manner of the search must be reasonable.”
In their judgement released on Wednesday, Justices Alex Lee and Coleman wrote that “many would find it difficult to imagine a more intrusive invasion of privacy than the search of… a mobile phone.” They nonetheless upheld the police warrants, “balancing” the need to respect citizen’s privacy with the need for police to access suspects’ phones for evidence of criminal conduct.
The ruling follows concerns raised over the expansion of police search powers under Article 43 of the national security law.
Judicial reviews are considered by the Court of First Instance and examine the decision-making processes of administrative bodies. Issues under review must be shown to affect the wider public interest.