Posts Tagged 'CPS'

Tommy, can you hear me?

I’ve written about the Proceeds of Crime Act before (oh yes I have, see here) and as it enables us to strip the bad guys of their ill-gotten white tigers, it’s definitely one of my top five Acts.

The above video illustrates why the powers afforded to us by ‘POCA’ can be so pleasing to use as they let us confiscate large amounts of cash on the spot and apply to the courts to strip criminal assets too.

Rather than being a gangster ducking and diving amongst foggy London Town’s docklands back in the 50s as his name suggests, Tommy Scragg was actually a conman living in leafy Solihull who was convicted of a multi-million pound tax fraud last year.

Officers looking into the fraud noticed Scragg was living way beyond his means and so have been able to get the court’s permission to sell off his stuff to help raise money for local community projects.

If you like the idea of criminals rightly losing all of their assets to the auctioneer’s hammer then it’s worth remembering that many successful seizures take place in the first place because members of the public have let us know something isn’t right about the finances of someone in their area.

Should you live next to someone with no identifiable source of income to explain the Fabergé egg collection you can see in their window then please give us a call, you never know how helpful your information might be!

You can call us on 101 or alternatively, give your information anonymously via Crimestoppers and let us know your suspicions.

Young ones shouldn’t be afraid…

The court system may not always provide the best fit for young witnesses, what provisions does the law give to make the process of giving evidence easier?

The story today about the disparaging comments apparently made by a CPS barrister regarding a young sexual abuse victim has raised concerns from charities and pressure groups about the way cases involving young people are dealt with by the courts.

At the best of times the courts are not the most friendly places, a trial can be a frightening process and uncomfortable too.

To provide a fair trial, the evidence forming the case has to be tested and when it comes to witnesses, the way this is done will be by cross examination with attempts made to find weaknesses in the credibility and reliability of those testifying.

For adults alone, this challenging of their evidence and of their character may be a stressful experience.

Even for police officers experienced in the court process and the giving of evidence, stepping into ‘the box’ is not something to look forward to.

For children then, it’s understandable that the prospect of a criminal trial would cause some real fear.

This isn’t only an issue leading up to a trial, concerns about participation in the judicial system may well put someone off approaching the police in the first place, the preference being to let things be rather than risk having to go to court.

To make things easier for young and vulnerable victims, the law provides a number of ‘special measures‘ designed to make people feel more at ease with the trial system.

Rather than asking young people to stand up in court to give their account, the law presumes that all young people will have their evidence videoed and this video be played at court.

Furthermore, there is an assumption that at court, young people will qualify for special arrangements designed to make the giving of evidence a less daunting experience.

One possibility is using a video link so that they don’t have to face the accused, another is in-court screens for the same purpose.

Further options include asking the court staff to remove their wigs and gowns to make the trial feel a little less formal, also clearing the court so that there is less of an audience to speak in front of.

Special measures are designed to make the trial process seem a little less hostile, to help bolster the confidence of those giving evidence.

Despite the measures though, a great deal of courage is still required hence acting as a witness is a respectable, commendable thing to do.

On the whole, the courts do well in encouraging such confidence – stories such as today’s don’t help but at the same time, aren’t representative of the system as a whole.

Everybody’s talking at me…

Trolling is one of the worst examples of internet misuse, is police investigation the solution considering the vast scale of the problem though?

As an officer heavily invested in social media as a valuable tool for helping promote the openness of the police, I’m often approached for advice on how best to proceed when we get allegations involving the misuse of sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

It’s a topic that I touch on from time to time on this blog too, relating to how we use social media and the best ways to tackle issues arising from its misuse.

Last August I’d written about proportionate ways to respond to online trolling and harassment, the summary being that in many cases the proportionate course of action may well be to block the offending accounts and make a report to site admins.

Looking at the issues raised this week by the offensive tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy, the same problems around launching police action resurface.

Traditional police action taken to look into every instance – described as “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours” – would conceivably necessitate an investigation on a truly vast scale.

There’d likely be hundreds of individual offenders to question spread across the whole of the country, each needing identification, arrest and interview.

Stemming from these enquiries, there’d be hundreds of computers to seize, thousands of hours spent preparing court files and a similar knock on effect felt the whole way down the justice system.

The resources involved for such an investigation would be massive, far beyond anything that police budgets could reasonably sustain with officers taken away from other duties accordingly.

This, baring in mind, is for one case and a case that sadly is not unique – the complaint and associated workload ought be repeated thousands of times by other users of social media experiencing similar issues.

Looking from this point of view at what is a very serious, distressing experience for those suffering trolling, the solution I don’t think can lie with the police alone.

Such huge criminal investigations are neither proportionate or sustainable in relation to the scale of the problem faced.

Rather, the problems needs to be tackled at source and that starts with the sites themselves.

Offending accounts need to be blocked but to prevent further issues, there’s a requirement for sites to offer a genuinely effective abuse reporting function and take steps to ensure that the upsetting example highlighted by Ms Criado-Perez is not a regular occurrence.

Options to flag trolling accounts in an easy, responsive way are a requirement and it’s the site creators that need to arrange this.

Sites such as Twitter and Facebook are the gatekeepers and need to take responsibility as such, the police can’t be left to do the job for them.

Paper romance…

With quantum computing just round the corner and communications satellites enabling us to stream funny cat videos to our smart phones whether we’re on the bus or at the top of Everest, you may be forgiven for assuming that our courts would have kept pace with technological advances.

As paperless offices were all the buzz at least ten years ago and Wi-Fi now pretty much a basic human right, surely the people dealing out justice to the futuristic spandex-wearing citizens of 2013 would be up to speed on computers?

Unfortunately not.

Enter a court room and not only will you see folk running around with funny wigs on, you’ll also see on every available surface big thick paper files that have to be carted in and out of the court by grumbling legal understudies with back problems.

Stack up all the 160,000,000 bits of environmentally hostile paper used by the justice system each year and the resulting pile would be fifteen times higher than Snowdon. That’s a lot of paper.

It’s not only a reliance on paper that is a little out of place in our futuristic times, it’s also that the most is not being made of the technologies that’d make everybody’s life much easier and save time as a result.

Examples include available Wi-Fi in court rooms so files can be shared electronically and better use made of electronic displays eliminating the need for folk to run around with multiple VHS tapes whenever CCTV evidence needs to be displayed.

It’s in response to concerns such as these that the Ministry of Justice has launched the ‘Transforming the Criminal Justice System‘ initiative under which it aims to have a digital court system up and running by 2016.

At ¬£160 million it’s not cheap, the savings in terms of everyone’s time and the associated reduction in costs that would follow though I think mean this is an investment that would likely pay for itself.

Amongst other areas, the money is proposed to be spent on:

  • Installing secure Wi-Fi in most courts so that all necessary files are available at the touch of a button.
  • Digital Evidence Screens so that documents can be displayed without the need for paper copies
  • Court Presentation Software allowing legal folk to easily navigate complicated court files

These are set against a wider range of proposals under the initiative to help improve the efficiency of the court system including adapting to digital systems now used by police and providing electronic portals on which victims can track the progress of their cases.

Last year in the West Midlands we switched to paperless first hearing files which saved a huge amount of the time that we would previously have spent sitting in funny paperwork nests after charging someone.

Rather than printing out case summaries, witness lists, statements and everything else we instead had the option simply to complete the file online and hit the send button to transfer it to the court.

The time this saved – hundreds of thousands of hours – can then be spent back out on the streets where we belong, shining torches down alleys and blowing our whistles at traffic.

Part of the proposals are that the majority of officers will provide evidence via video link – again this is something already trialled in the West Midlands and has drastically reduced the amount of time wasted by officers who are called to court, spend a morning twiddling thumbs in the witness room before being told they’re not required.

As an estimate, some four and a half million officer hours could be freed should the proposals be implemented in all forces which is a good thing for everyone other than criminals.

I’m a big fan of proposals that result in criminals losing out and as I’d rather not spend any more time than I have to ‘file building’ in the office, I’ll be following the implementation of the Transforming the Criminal Justice System initiative with great interest.

There’s so much you have to know…

What am I going on about when I talk about getting some ‘CPS advice’?

As I mentioned on me Twitter feed earlier today, this shift I had to give the Crown Prosecution Service a call to get some advice in relation to a prisoner I’d been dealing with.

This is something we have to do fairly frequently on the Investigation Team, what does ‘going to CPS’ involve though and why do we have to do it? For that matter, who are the CPS anyway?

First things first, the Crown Prosecution Service is the department responsible for prosecuting the criminal cases that we police officers present to them as a result of our investigations.

They give advice on the cases that we’re putting together, make sure cases are in a suitable condition to be put to the courts and it’s the CPS lawyers who present said cases to the court itself.

As a condition of their employment, all Crown Prosecution Service employees have to wear crowns whenever on duty as a sign of their legal authority.*

The CPS has been operating ever since 1986, prior to this date police forces would prosecute their own cases.

When it comes to ‘going to CPS’, whether we have to do so or not depends on the type of cases that we’re working on.

For simpler jobs, such as a minor assault or low value criminal damage, we police can make the decision about whether there’s enough evidence to take a matter to court and so don’t need to consult with CPS beforehand.

More serious offences, or anything involving a domestic or hate crime element, usually require us to ask CPS to have a look at the circumstances of the report and the available evidence as only CPS can authorise us to charge someone with said offence.

So, we police are allowed to decide to charge people with low level offences whilst CPS have to check serious crime cases before they’re able to go to court, what does the process itself involve?

Like with many other areas, each force will have different procedures but in the West Midlands, we have a program called Electronic File Build (Battlefield 4, eat your heart out!) which links in with our own custody computers.

When we need advice, or in any case if we’re charging someone to go to court, we can upload much of our evidence electronically to the File Build program and then zap it straight across to CPS.

This means CPS get an outline of the case along with copies of statements, exhibits and the like within minutes of us sending them and then can reply to us in the same fashion.

Prior to using this electronic system, we used to fax paper documents (children of the 1990s, see here) or if the fax machine wasn’t working, even read out whole statements over the phone which you can appreciate took a lot of our time so the electronic system is much more efficient.

Once the documents are sent, we’ll then pick up the phone and speak to a CPS lawyer at one of their call centres who may ask a few questions about the case and then will give us a decision.

If you hear in the news that police have ‘submitted a file to CPS’, this is usually what is meant, although the exact mechanism varies and for complicated cases officers will meet with CPS representatives in person to discuss the evidence.

Having CPS oversight is useful as particularly in serious cases, the law can be very complicated hence why it is necessary for a legal professional to review the case to ensure that we have the best chance of getting a conviction in court.

So there’s the process of how and why we have to get CPS advice in as simpler terms as I think I can manage.

If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can take a look at the Director’s Guidance on Charging but if not, simply take away that CPS are the legal experts who work with us to help ensure the cases we investigate arrive at the best possible result.

* Okay, this bit may not be true although what the CPS lawyers wear whilst working in their call centres is a matter for themselves!

Communications breakdown…

Another excellent bit of twittering from Solihull Police. How are the CPS advising decisions be made when social media is misused though? What would be a realistic approach?

As you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader of these here words, the police use of social media is a subject that is of great interest to me and so one that I periodically return to whenever a relevant story pops up in the news.

I believe the last time I visited the subject was when I resorted to using Cher Lloyd lyrics for a blog in August shortly after Tom Daley suffered some ‘trolling’ on his Twitter account.

Reflecting my own experience using social media as a member of the 5-0, I’d suggested that the police can’t be expected to police people’s usage of social media.

Rather, social media sites themselves have a responsibility for offering tools to block and flag inappropriate content so that misuse is addressed before it gets out of hand and that care needs to be taken ‘offensive’ content be evaluated in its proper context.

This wasn’t to argue that offences can’t be committed using social media, nor that there aren’t occasions when the police might need to intervene, but simply to say that in many cases it’s neither appropriate, practical or necessary to do so.

Today the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has published interim advice for prosecutors on how they should make decisions on whether suspects ought to be charged in relation to an allegation that they have misused social media. This advice can be summed up as follows:

  • Communications that may constitute credible threats of violence, harassment or a breach of a court order ought be ‘prosecuted robustly’
  • Communications that don’t meet the above criteria, for example offensive posts, will be subject to a tough ‘Full Code‘ test, this is whether there is a substantial offence and it is in the public interest to prosecute
  • For the first part of the test, the threshold for ‘grossly’ offensive content will be that it is more than simply shocking, satirical or unpopular
  • For the second part of the test relating to the public interest, it’d unlikely to be right to prosecute if the suspect had swiftly moved to remove the content in question, if they hadn’t intended the content to reach a wider audience or if the content could be seen as ‘tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society’

I think this is some very sensible advice which helps address the concerns I’d expressed previously that if social media isn’t properly understood and misuse tackled in a manner appropriate to the medium, the criminal justice system would quickly find itself inundated with cases that shouldn’t really be finding their way to court in the first place.

Taking the above tweet from @SolihullPolice as an example, it was quickly forwarded on by 22,000 other users. That’s 22,000 people who went on to republish the content through their own Twitter accounts, not to mention on other sites and networks.

Imagine now that rather than being a witty update, the same tweet was offensive in tone. Take this tweet from the BNP with the headline ‘Savage Muslim jailed for life‘ as an example.

I like most people find this content absolutely abhorrent, some may approach the police saying as much.

A tough decision then would have to be made as to whether the legal system represents the right tool for addressing the offence caused.

I’m confident that the tweet is indeed offensive but is it ‘grossly’ offensive, particularly considering the publisher and its intended audience? Unfortunately not.

Again, in terms of it being in the public interest to prosecute people for publishing such unpopular sentiments, it’s unlikely that an argument could be made that it is.

Furthermore, were it to be the case that 22,000 people were to forward on the same tweet it obviously wouldn’t be any sort of realistic prospect to be looking at 22,000 separate crime reports with 22,000 offenders to be arrested, interviewed and charged.

An extreme example admittedly but it goes to show how unless there are some tough tests for which cases are appropriate for trial, investigations could quickly spiral out of all sensible proportion.

As impractical as such an occurrence may seem, it was only last month when during the Lord McAlpine scandal, there were suggestions that the police look at investigating over one thousand Twitter users who had wrongly named him as connected to a sex abuse allegation, alongside a further nine thousand who had retweeted the same messages.

I think it’s fair to say that social media and the way it is used is always going to evolve faster than the law can keep up with it. The amount of people using it though and the related potential for issues to arise likely to involve criminal law mean that social media will always have to be kept under review so that the application of the law is appropriate to the medium.

With half a billion tweets being sent daily, the DPP’s advice is a timely reminder that if we don’t try and tailor the law to circumstance then the consequence can be that it is quickly rendered unsuitable for protecting the public it is designed to serve.

For a little more on the application of the law in relation to the Tom Daley case, have a look at this interesting Guardian article from July by Joshua Rozenberg.

Tell em’ what the master has done…

Making a report of domestic abuse isn’t an easy step to take, unfamiliarity with the police shouldn’t be a barrier though.

Whilst tapping away at the keyboard yesterday writing about the Justin Lee Collins case and the issue of domestic abuse, I reached a certain point in the article where I suggested that one reason domestic abuse is under-reported is because victims are unfamiliar with the police and the justice system.

No sooner had I capped the suggestion off with a full stop, I thought the following – might it be helpful to look at the likely steps taken after a report of domestic abuse is made to ourselves?

I think it would and so what follows is a brief overview of what you might expect to happen after making such a report.

It can only be a general guide as each investigation is tailored to individual circumstances and outside the West Midlands, different forces will have different procedures but still, hopefully it’ll help clarify what us police will be looking to do and why.

In the first instance we’ll be looking to gather as much evidence as we’re able. Usually this will mean taking a statement which is simply a written account of what’s been happening.

Sometimes rather than taking a statement we’ll instead sit down at a police station and conduct a video interview – the result is the same as taking a written statement but rather than ending up with an account on a page, we’ll have it on a DVD.

Alongside the evidence from the statement, we’ll look to gather as much supporting evidence as we can.

If it’s a recent incident we may look to do some house to house enquiries, check CCTV, and with the victim’s permission possibly approach friends and family to see if they can provide statements too.

If appropriate we may also look to gather any medical evidence we can, again to help build up a case and strengthen the chances of a successful prosecution.

Inquiries such as these are carried out in a sensitive manner and with both the consent and understanding of the person making the report. The officers attending will happily answer any questions – building up the case is a process designed with the victim in mind and should take place at a pace they’re comfortable with.

An important part of the role played by the attending officers in the early stages will be making a referral to our Public Protection Unit (PPU) – a team of detectives who specialise in domestic and sexual abuse investigation.

On receiving a summary of a domestic abuse report, a member of the PPU will likely contact the victim by a pre-arranged method and can offer further support, perhaps also involving partner domestic abuse agencies who too are there to help victims in anyway they can.

A particular concern of the PPU will be the safety of the victim and so they can discuss safeguarding options as appropriate including the fitting of bleep alarms, relocation and a range of other possibilities.

Once the available evidence has been gathered, officers will then look to make an arrest, although this can happen at an earlier stage if it’s thought that there’s an immediate risk.

I’ve written before about the custody procedure but can sum it up by saying that just as taking statements or gathering forensics evidence, it’s another important part of the investigation.

If necessary forensics samples can be taken, if not when the officers are ready they’ll sit down and interview the suspect to get his or her account of what is alleged to have happened. The evidence will be put to the suspect and their responses recorded on tape.

With an account obtained from the suspect, the next stage is probably going to be for the officers to consult the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who will evaluate the available evidence and decide what is to happen with the case.

The CPS are responsible for making charging decisions in the majority of domestic abuse cases and if they feel that the evidence is strong enough, they can authorise us to charge the suspect. This means they’ll be required to attend court and answer the charge.

Once a suspect has been charged, we then have to consider whether we are going to keep the suspect in custody until the court case (to ‘remand’ them), or to bail them, releasing them from the cells under the requirement that they attend court as instructed.

Past history, risk of further incidents and the severity of the report all will affect the choice as to whether to remand or bail but should a suspect be bailed, conditions will be applied meaning that the suspect has to comply with certain rules that we’ve set.

Common bail conditions include having no contact with the victim and staying at a certain address etc. If these are breached, a suspect can expect to be promptly rearrested.

Either way the officers investigating the report will keep you updated and you should be provided with a reference that you’ll be able to phone the non-emergency number, 101, and quote should you need anything.

The first hearing will be at Magistrates’ Court and usually happens within two weeks or so of being charged. The suspect is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, if they plead guilty they will be sentenced whilst if they deny the charge the court will probably reconvene at a later point for a full trial.

Out of the whole process of making a domestic abuse report, it’s the court process that is probably the most daunting but it’s important to remember that the courts offer victims all the support they are able to so that the process is as easy as it can be.

Charities such as Victim Support will update victims throughout the case and offer trips to the courts to help people familiarise themselves. The courts themselves likewise can offer a series of ‘special measures’ to make it easier to give evidence, be it having screens in the court so that the defendant is hidden or supplying testimony over a video link.

As I stated, the above can only really be a rough guide but suggests some of the directions in which a domestic abuse report can go once it is received by ourselves.

It’s also worth a reminder that whilst it’s possible that a report will go as far as court, this isn’t a given outcome and much depends on whether the CPS believe the evidence is strong enough to give a reasonable chance of a successful prosecution.

The best advice I can give is that should you or someone you know be thinking of confronting a domestic abuse problem and are unsure about anything, ask us or one of our partner agencies as we’ll be more than happy to help.

Finding the courage to make a domestic abuse report is one of the hardest things that some people will ever have to do – hard it may be, but confusing it shouldn’t be.

You can find more information on the court process and what’s involved in giving evidence on the websites of Victim Support, the CPS and Directgov.

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