There client had an unusual defence to put forward. He had logged into an adult chatroom. He believed that any conversations he had online, and later on other social media threads, was with a person pretending to be a child for the purposes of a sexual fantasy.
His instructions were that a full record of each conversation would support his account. As a result, immediately following his not guilty plea, specific enquiries were made of the prosecution.
Evidence required from paedophile hunters’ phones
In order to establish the evidence that could lead to our client’s acquittal the following information was requested:
full threads of the messaging from the adult site taken from the paedophile hunters’ phones
similar threads from other messaging apps used to communicate, again from their phones
the profiles that the hunters were using on the adult site
our client’s profile
It appears often the case that the police are content to rely upon screenshots given to them by the paedophile hunters. As a result, the prosecution is dependent upon evidence that may be incomplete. It a client intends to advance a defence it is vital that these enquiries are made immediately.
The witnesses also maintained that our client had made a confession that had been filmed and streamed. The footage located online was only partial and did not contain a confession. That material was also sought.
The prosecution asked for the case to be brought into the list several months before the trial date. This was because, as a result of our enquiries, they had look at the case and intended to offer no evidence. This was because the prosecution had been unable to secure the evidence that we had requested and as a result could not check its veracity or accuracy.
The evidence had not been preserved by the witnesses themselves, and was no longer available. A software corruption had also occurred which mean that the phones could not be properly interrogated now. Finally, there was no footage said to contain a confession to the offence.
Paedophile hunters ‘need to be aware of the rules’
The Judge hearing the case observed that in terms of case numbers, prosecutions dependent upon evidence from paedophile hunters was a ‘growth area’. Although a large proportion of these cases result in a guilty plea, particularly where charges are backed up with a video of a meeting.
He went on, however, to express a real concern about the nature of the ‘investigators’, accepting that this was in many cases a ‘loose’ use of the term. The Judge expressed concerns that they operated outside any statutory scheme of evidence preservation and disclosure. If they were to continue in such cases, his view was that they ought to be made aware of the rules. If they do not consider and comply with the rules, they won’t be a help and their conduct will lead to more cases with difficulties such as this one.
Contact a Crown Court litigation specialist
It may be that you face potential proceedings based on evidence provided by paedophile hunters, or another serious allegation. If so, you will wish to instruct a Crown Court litigation and advocacy team that will takes steps at an early stage of proceedings to advance your case where necessary.
Ruth is based at our new Chesterfield office. You can find the contact details here. Alternatively you can use the contact form below. If one of our other offices is closer to you then please contact the one most convenient to you for an appointment.
The trial was heard at Nottingham Crown Court and finally resolved in our client’s favour.
‘Investigation’ followed a familiar pattern…
The case followed a familiar pattern. The paedophile hunter had posted comments in various online chat rooms posing as a teenage girl. A person using the profile of our client had made contact and begun a sexually inappropriate conversation including sending explicit images. The paedophile hunter then arranged a meeting between the person and the girl.
Of course, if the person went to meet the child then instead he would be confronted by the vigilante. The confrontation would then be filmed and posted on social media. It is only then that the police are called.
…until nobody turned up at the meeting
This case was different, however, in that nobody turned up to the meeting apart from the hunters. They made visits to our client’s address but again to no avail. This did not prevent them posting their allegations on social media despite the fact they lacked the final part of the jigsaw to say who was responsible.
The police were eventually called and our client was arrested. Following interview he was charged with the attempts to contact children to send or receive sexual images. (((check the offences))))). It transpired that his profile had been used in three separate contacts with children.
Defence set out very early on in proceedings
Our client set out his defence very early on. He stated that he was not responsible for the messaging and that somebody else had been using his profile although he could not say who. On his behalf, Caine told the court and the prosecution that the mobile phone handsets used by his client and the paedophile hunters would need to be examined by the defence bearing in mind the defence.
The evidence provided so far was in the form of screenshots rather than the individual messages within the applications. An analysis of both the applications and WhatsApp conversations would be necessary. The prosecution’s own telecommunications expert confirmed that such an examination would be necessary to look at the source and provenance of the messages.
One handset missing – but whose fault?
Andrew and Caine became increasingly concerned about whether the defence would have an opportunity to examine the handsets. Eventually, in relation to two sets of allegations, the prosecution confirmed that they did not have the phone. The key witness, the paedophile hunter, gave a statement stating that he had handed the phone to the police. The police denied that this was the case.
It appeared unlikely that the hunter was telling the truth as neither his original statement nor that of the officers contained any reference to a phone being received into evidence.
Delayed access for our expert witness
In relation to the final set of offences, the police only permitted access a week before the trial. The report received cast doubt on police evidence that certain photographs to be found in the screenshots of chats were recovered from our client’s phone handset. Andrew had been unable to find them and nor could our expert.
Andrew prepared skeleton arguments. The first was in relation to whether the prosecution ought to be allowed to carry on with the first two sets of proceedings. There had been a failure by the police to secure key evidence. We had been unable to properly examine the device that was the source of the screen shots.
Secondly, the Crown needed to apply to amend the indictment to add the final set of charges. The evidence did not appear to support the addition of these new charges as key photographic images had not been found on our client’s handset, despite police assertions to the contrary.
No-show of paedophile hunter at trial
The prosecution succeeded in its application to add two new charges to the indictment.
However, the witness who was responsible for the missing handset failed to attend court on the first day of the trial. He left a message that he would not be attending, but when further information was sought he refused to answer his phone or respond to messages.
Wisely the prosecution chose not to proceed with the first five charges.
Significant failure in disclosure of evidence by prosecution
Time had to be spent in resolving the issue of the missing photographs for the remaining two charges. It transpired that when our expert had examined the phone of the other paedophile hunter the police had not prepared their own download so no detailed analysis was possible within the timescale allowed by the police.
Further, both our expert and Andrew had only been given half the download of our client’s own handset. The images recovered from the memory card had not been supplied. As a result, at lunchtime on the first day of the trial Andrew was served with two further discs. The first was the contents of the memory card. This amounted to over 36 000 images contained within 12 500 pages of PDF pages.
The second disc was password protected and was the download disc for the paedophile hunter’s phone.
Somebody else’s holiday photos
During the evening, Andrew began to look at the contents of the memory card. It became clear that the photographs in the main did not belong to his client. There were hundreds of holiday photos that did not show his client. As the phone was brought second hand then it was assumed that these were the photos of the previous owner. The photos were not in date order and not catalogued in a way that would allow them to be examined so Andrew abandoned his analysis.
Password given by police was wrong
Andrew was unable to view the contents of the password protected disc. The following morning it became clear why. The police had missed a crucial digit from the password. When Andrew was able to open the disc at the start of day two of the trial he was faced with a further 1800 thumbnail images that were again not catalogued in a way that permitted analysis in the timescale of the trial.
Legal argument on abuse of process
As a result, Andrew prepared a further argument that maintained that it would be an abuse of the process of the court to permit the prosecution to proceed. Alternatively, Andrew argued that all of the evidence of the chats and the photographs should be excluded for unfairness under section 78 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
The Judge agreed with Andrew’s abuse of process argument and stayed the proceedings. She agreed with Andrew’s submission that in cases that were begun by amateur detectives such as paedophile hunters it was incumbent on the police and the prosecution to ensure that thereafter the defendant had the protection of the relevant law and rules.
Here our client was unable to have his case properly presented, even in relation to the last two charges, as the prosecution had not made early disclosure of relevant evidence in a way that permitted it to be examined and challenged. Neither Andrew or the defence expert had been able to prepare a proper challenge to the evidence in the case. Our client was unable to have a fair trial.
Proceedings were stayed and our client was discharged. The judge made the point that even if she were wrong to have stayed proceedings, she would have agreed with the application to exclude all of the evidence upon which the prosecution could found the case. The case would have ended in a similar way for our client.
Crown Court legal Aid ensured free representation
Our client had the benefit of legal aid. This ensured that he did not have to pay for the representation of either Caine or Andrew. Further, he did not have to pay for what was an expensive analysis of the handsets in this case. More about Crown Court legal aid can be found here.
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