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18 Aug 2017

Arrest first, questions later?

The recent case of the so-called “Putney pusher” has thrown into sharp focus the actions of the police during investigations which are the subject of intense public scrutiny from the outset. On this occasion, a grainy CCTV video depicted a male individual pushing a woman into the path of an oncoming bus on the morning of 5 May 2017, without any apparent rhyme or reason to his actions. The dramatic scene has subsequently been played out across international news channels, and stills of the incident have consistently made front page news.

In what quickly became described as a “manhunt,” the Metropolitan Police came under significant pressure to progress their investigation, leading them to arrest 41 year old investment banker Eric Bellquist on suspicion of grievous bodily harm (GBH). It is not clear what led to the (wrongful) identification of Mr Bellquist as a suspect, but subsequent statements have repeated the rhetoric that they had “reasonable grounds” for arrest. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand why Mr Bellquist was arrested on suspicion of causing GBH, given the fact that (according to press reports) the victim was not seriously injured during the incident, thanks to the quick reactions of the bus driver. Although the press reports may well be mistaken about the actual offence for which Mr Bellquist was arrested, it would make more sense for the individual concerned to be under investigation for attempted GBH given the known facts of the case.

Once Mr Bellquist’s identity, together with evidence proving that he could not have committed any offence was revealed by his lawyers, police confirmed that no further action would be taken and the case against him was dropped. The principal question posed by this case is whether there was a necessity to arrest Mr Bellquist at all, despite the police having supposedly “reasonable grounds” for doing so. Police have acknowledged that they did not check whether Mr Bellquist was in the country at the time of the incident and it is not clear whether any steps were taken prior to arrest to establish this fact. Sadly this is not an anomalous situation, but is one which should rightfully be questioned given the enormous impact which arrest can have on a suspect’s life, especially when it proves to be entirely without merit.

In March 2017, an article on this blog examined in detail the statutory provisions which underpin the discretion afforded to police in the decision to make an arrest. In brief, section 24(2) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (“PACE”) provides the basis on which the police will routinely justify arrest – that an offence has been committed and they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect that an individual might have been responsible. Section 24(2) is caveated by a safeguard in section 24(5) – that the exercise of summary arrest may only be exercised where it is “necessary” for any of the following prescribed reasons:

  1. To ascertain the name of the individual;
  2. To ascertain the address of the individual;
  3. To prevent the individual causing physical injury to himself or others, suffering physical injury, causing loss or damage to property, committing an offence against public decency or causing an unlawful obstruction to the highway;
  4. To protect a child or other vulnerable person from that individual;
  5. To allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct in question;
  6. To prevent the prosecution being hindered by the individual’s disappearance.

In this case, it is arguable whether the arrest was either objectively “reasonable” given the exculpatory evidence which would have been easily available to police, or “necessary” according to any of the required grounds in PACE. On the immediately available facts, it appears that the principle relevant ground upon which necessity could be made out is (e). Frequently this is utilised as a mechanism by which the suspect can be brought to a police station for questioning without contamination of their evidence.

The PACE Code of Practice governing police powers of arrest (Code G) states that the arresting officer must “consider whether their arrest is necessary in order to carry out the interview” or “whether the suspect’s voluntary attendance is a practicable alternative.” Given the fact that Mr Bellquist was apparently able to provide evidence of his whereabouts at short notice, a more circumspect approach by police may have saved his unnecessary arrest and detention, as well as the unfavourable image cast upon the force by their actions.

In cases where an individual possesses clear and indisputable evidence of his/her innocence, there are certain actions which can be taken to mitigate against the effects of arrest once it has occurred. The first is the potential for representations at the police station regarding the necessity for an interview under caution. Detention of any suspect at the police station is subject to ongoing and constant review. Where the grounds for reasonable suspicion fall away, so too should the authorisation for the continued deprivation of their liberty.

The second issue to consider in cases where there may be a high degree of press interest, is whether it may be beneficial to obtain advice from specialist media consultants or lawyers. This can assist in limiting the repercussions on an individual’s reputation, either by careful management of the press, or by more formal means such as an emergency injunction to prevent the release of personal or professional details.

The final consideration is the retention of the fact of an individual’s arrest on the police database (PNC). This can have an impact on travel to some countries requiring VISAs (particularly the USA) as well as on any employment which requires an enhanced DBS check to be performed. If and when another individual is convicted of this offence, indisputable grounds arise for appealing to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to have an arrest removed from the PNC on the grounds of proven mistaken identity. If another individual is not convicted, then it can be more difficult (although by no means impossible) to use this ground. Guidance from the ACRO Criminal Records Office states that the police must be given “positive evidence” that an individual has been eliminated as a suspect by the police specifically for reasons such as mistaken identity.

Whilst the fact of mistaken identity would appear, on the face of it, to have been satisfied in Mr Bellquist’s case, the guidance goes on to state that a simple decision by police to take no further action will not necessarily reach the required threshold for removal. It can therefore be useful to obtain written acknowledgment from police that they accept an individual could not have committed this offence. Given the stress and damage which can be caused by arrest, especially in cases where it has been entirely erroneous, one would hope that police would agree to such a request as a form of reparation for the damage caused.

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