Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/08/18/police_online_images_warning/

Police slam internet justice - then use it themselves

What is contempt anyway?

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Law, 18th August 2010 11:18 GMT

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".

Safer Neighbourhoods Chief Inspector Rick Tyson, said: "We always try to offer support in the first instance and did so in this case. However we had to take matters further due to the persistence of the women's behaviour and the needs and concerns of the local community."

Of course, with no trial in the offing, there is no suggestion that such actions would endanger prosecutions. However, the issue that many critics of ASBOs have raised is that they are very odd law: once an ASBO has been granted in respect of a specific piece of behaviour, the ASBOed needs only subsequently to cause a neighbour "alarm" or "distress" for the full weight of the ASBO to be triggered, and the individual to receive a criminal conviction.

Catherine Stephenson of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) told us: "Placing these women’s pictures on the police website might be considered not unlike painting a target on their backs, encouraging neighbours to make complaints, or worse, outing them to anyone with a grudge against sex workers."

While the Met does wait for some form of legal sanction before publicising individual details, City Police went a step further, taking the News of the World out on patrol and allowing their photographer to snap away as the police raided two Polish women who were selling sex from their home in Aldgate, East London.

The women were subsequently not charged, but the damage was done: their pics, with faces obscured, but otherwise according to the women recognisable from other details, appeared shortly after in the News of the World.

City Police told us: "ACPO guidelines clearly state that working with the media on operations can assist in the prevention and detection of crime. It is important that our community is aware of the work the force is carrying out to respond to its concerns and reduce crime in the City."

However, publication of such pictures is quite possibly prejudicial, could possibly incite a complaint and might be damaging to the legal process should any of the individuals ever come to trial.

It may be time for the police and courts to instil some consistency when it comes to making details of possible criminals public. ®