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Police slam internet justice - then use it themselves

What is contempt anyway?

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Opinion Police and the courts are losing their patience with overenthusiastic net citizens, whose "helpful" sleuthing has caused trials to be abandoned and wasted tens of thousands from the public purse.

The police, however, seem a little less fastidious about protecting due process where they feel a little local publicity will do them good.

It is now almost two years since Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge of Draycote was bemoaning the damage done to trials by jurors doing their own private researches outside the court room. He cited one rape trial which had to be abandoned for just this reason. More recently, he has taken stronger action, requiring courts to warn jurors that private investigation on their part could lead to the quashing of convictions.

Last week, it was the turn of the National Detectives Forum, a specialist unit which advises the Police Federation, to call time on the amateurs, as it revealed that a number of trials had collapsed after victims and witnesses played detective, browsing Facebook and Twitter to find a suspect.

The Daily Mail reports one case, in which an individual attacked outside a house party then found their alleged assailant on Facebook. The suspect was arrested for the assault, but evidence from a subsequent identity parade was ruled inadmissible when it was discovered that both the victim and witnesses had viewed the suspect's Facebook photograph numerous times.

Dennis Weeks, secretary of the National Detective Forum, said: “Witnesses and victims are conducting their own investigations of their own crimes when they are not effectively taught or equipped to do so and are subverting laws that they are not even aware of.

"They think that they are making our life easier when in fact they are making the prospect of a prosecution against the offender much more difficult."

Given the dangers of publicising ongoing investigations, it might be expected that the police themselves would be careful with how they release information to the press. However, two cases brought to public attention in the Guardian last week suggest that the police are a lot less strict in what they themselves do in this respect.

First up is the case of six "persistent" sex workers who, the Met told us, had "rejected a raft of supportive measures aimed at helping them change their behaviour". The police decided that there was nothing else for it than to apply for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) against the individuals involved – and then to place their pictures, full names and dates of birth up on the Met’s website. In this case, the pics were up for a month, which is the length of time the police considered "appropriate".

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