Caution Under Caution – Robert’s Tale

Every criminal solicitor who has sat through a ‘no comment’ interview will have heard this seemingly innocent piece of police officer shtick:

“Look John, I understand you have a solicitor here and you’ve taken advice, but this is your opportunity to give your side of the story. There are always two sides to each story.” 

And then comes the inevitable line:

“We’re impartial evidence gatherers, we’re not here to judge, and we’ll look at it from your side as much as we will theirs… what happened?” 

In the face of such friendly cajoling, it can be tempting for a person to speak to the police even when informed by their legal representative in no uncertain terms that it’s not in their interests to do so.  This is no surprise, of course. Our society places a great deal of trust in the police to look after our interests and protect us. People do not naturally like to believe that the police may not be shooting straight.

Sadly, the police often shoot far from straight.

A good recent example of this is my recent client. Robert. Robert is an experienced doorman at a busy nightclub in the Oxford city centre. On the night in question a young man was ejected by a colleague for being too drunk and aggressive inside the club.  He tried to get back in and Robert refused him entry. What happens next is all captured on CCTV. A conversation took place about why he couldn’t come in.  The lad became more animated. In doorman parlance he was “kicking off”. Robert asked his colleague to radio the police. After several minutes the police still hadn’t attended.

The CCTV shows Robert push the complainant back forcefully, and then once more before pinning him face down on the floor.  The police were radioed again and again they didn’t attend. Eventually the lad calmed and Robert and his colleague released him, told him to stop being such a plonker, to go home and sober up.

The Crown alleged the pushes were assaults. Robert said it was self-defence as the lad began threatening him and he thought he was about to be head-butted, so he pushed him back.

Robert was arrested and interviewed. He didn’t ask for a solicitor. He said he didn’t think he needed one as he hadn’t done anything wrong. He answered every question.

The officer in charge of the case clearly disagreed with Robert’s account. He said as much in interview. Now everyone is entitled to their opinion, but this isn’t completely in line with the “impartial evidence gatherer” rhetoric set out in the interview. Far from it.

Crucially, in Interview, Robert relies on three points for his defence:

  • The young man was verbally aggressive, and verbally threatening.
  • They called the police several times but they didn’t attend and so he felt he had to act.
  • He pushed him away with an open palm on the upper chest/ neck area, he did not punch him.

At court the evidence is served on the defence. In the bundle there is a statement from the interviewing officer with a summary of the interview. The Crown want this summary accepted as evidence so that it can be read out at a trial. They used to provide a transcript of the interview. Not anymore. This way is cheaper and it’s all about cheap now.

Having read the summary I pointed out that his failure to mention that he had been threatened wasn’t helpful. Robert looked puzzled and said that he had mentioned it. He also gave me several other details the police officer simply failed to mention in his statement.

As is routine when preparing a trial, I requested the interview DVD and had a listen. To my surprise and annoyance, it became immediately clear that the officer had been interestingly creative with his editing and summarising of the interview.  Some examples:

  • In a section of the summary put in quotation marks (and so one would assume is a quote). He misses out “verbally threatening” which Robert clearly says. They are just cut out of the middle of the sentence.
  • In the middle of two paragraphs summarising the events Robert references calling the police and the police not attending. Guess what? Not in the summary. Not a mention of it.
  • Finally, in interview the officer showed Robert the CCTV and said, “you pushed him in the face.” Robert disagreed and said it was the chest. They viewed the CCTV and Robert revised his account and accepted it was the upper chest and neck, but not the face (this is clearly correct when you view the CCTV slowly). The officer’s statement containing the summary reads “Robert said he pushed him in the chest, he maintained this account event when shown CCTV clearly showing him push him in the face”.

Impartial indeed.

The total effect is that the summary paints an entirely different and misleading picture of Robert’s account in interview. This could have adversely affected his defence at trial had it not been checked, particularly had Robert not been represented at court, and now, with the assault on legal aid removing it from many people with modest income, that is a more and more common situation.

Of course, we corrected the summary and informed the Crown of the “error”. This one was caught. I worry that many are not.

It seems to me, the lessons to take away from this are threefold:

  • Whether innocent or guilty, ask for a solicitor at the police station. It’s free, it’s independent, it can stop issues like the above before they start. You don’t have to take their advice, but it doesn’t hurt to get it. And again, it’s free!
  • When preparing a case check everything. Twice. The devil is almost always in the details. If you are representing yourself, check everything three times. Or better still, get a good solicitor.
  • I’m sure many police officers are impartial evidence gatherers, but equally many are not. Protect yourself by getting a Solicitor early in proceedings, preferably in the Police Station.

Following trial Robert was found not guilty. The Magistrates concluded that the young man was drunk, aggressive and they accepted Robert had to act as the Police had not attended when called.  In their verdict they said, “We found the Defendant a credible witness today and consistent with his account in interview” and accepted that he acted in self- defence.

Robert would have lost his SIA licence and consequently his job had he been convicted of the offence. Needless to say, he was relieved it was all over.
If you need help in relation to any of the issues raised here, please contact us at info@reeds.co.uk  or 0333 2407373.

Scott Primmer is a solicitor in our Private Crime Department.

Scott Primmer