Joint Investigation Teams: European authorities get digital cooperation platform

EU investigators want to set up a new information system for the exchange of digital evidence. Criminal justice authorities would be connected, but not customs. The German Ministry of Justice therefore issues a protocol declaration.

With a new regulation, the European Union wants to facilitate cross-border cooperation between law enforcement and judicial authorities in difficult investigations. The format of Joint Investigation Teams (JITs) is to be given a central point for the exchange of digital evidence and other information for this purpose. Other EU agencies would also be connected to this, including Eurojust, Europol, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and the anti-fraud agency OLAF.

The proposal for the establishment of such a „platform“ was presented by the EU Commission in December. As a building block of the „digitalisation initiative“ in the area of criminal justice, it is intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing systems. According to the proposal, the development and technical management of the „platform“ will be entrusted to the Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems (eu-LISA).

For investigations with a need for coordination

For more than 20 years, police forces and prosecutors from EU member states have been able to cooperate with each other in investigations. This is based on the EU Mutual Legal Assistance Convention signed in 2000 and a Framework Decision on the launch of a JIT adopted two years later by the governments of the member states. According to this, a JIT can be formed if offences to be prosecuted also affect other member states. In particular, the authorities use a JIT for difficult and complex investigations; the same applies to investigations requiring coordination between investigators from different states.

In 2005, the member states set up a network of national experts (JIT network) to coordinate joint investigation teams. It meets once a year. Each Member State appoints one or more national experts from the judiciary (prosecutors, judges, ministries of justice) or law enforcement (police, ministries of the interior). In their sending state, they act as contact points for the establishment of a JIT.

Since 2011, the network has also had a secretariat based at Eurojust. Eurojust is the agency for judicial cooperation in criminal matters, based in The Hague. As the judicial authority, it is responsible for coordinating the Joint Investigation Teams.

Storage of files and „communication tool“

The core of the new „platform“ is a central place for uploading and downloading investigation files and other digital information, especially large files. Once all participants have downloaded them, they are automatically deleted. A mechanism logs who has uploaded or downloaded data. This should improve the admissibility of the exchanged evidence in court.

Investigators will be able to communicate with each other via a „communication tool“. It consists of a messenger, a chat function, an audio and video conference system as well as a function „that replaces traditional e-mails“. Communication is to take place via Europol’s SIENA network. The German EU Presidency had called for a similar system two years ago within the framework of a „European Police Partnership“.

The „platform“ is hosted in Strasbourg, where eu-LISA also physically operates the other information systems for which it is responsible. Following this routine, a backup is located in St. Johann, Austria. The development, maintenance and operation of the „platform“ is estimated to cost eu-LISA around €8.4 million. The annual maintenance and operating costs are expected to be around €1.7 million. In addition, there will be a total of ten full-time positions.

No access for customs

Joint Investigation Teams can also be set up under the Naples II Convention to prosecute customs crime. However, according to the proposal, the customs offices of the member states will not have access to the new „platform“.

Germany in particular had lobbied for this in the Council. Because the demand could not be accepted by the other Member States, the German Ministry of Justice is adding a protocol declaration to its approval of the new regulation.

The day after tomorrow, the EU Justice Ministers want to finalise their position on the JIT Regulation at their Council meeting in Luxembourg. Afterwards, the Parliament’s Home Affairs and Justice Committee (LIBE) will deal with the proposal. The trilogue negotiations between the Council, MEPs and the Commission could then be concluded before the end of the year.

Image: Investigators from France and Europol during a raid in Moldova (Europol).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.