Airports have been empty spaces of late, with international travel effectively ‘shut down’ by the Covid- 19 crisis, but news reports at the weekend reminded us of the time Gatwick Airport suffered a shut down of its own at one of the busiest times of the year, around Christmas 2018, when sightings of ‘drones’ led to the airport having to repeatedly close, causing disruption to hundreds of thousands of passengers.
Paul and Elaine Gait were swept up in the chaos of this incident when armed Officers from Sussex Police raided their home and took them into custody. They then spent 36 hours in distress and anxiety, falsely accused of being involved in the drone attacks despite the fact they did not own any drones and had been at work when the disruption had occurred.
They have now recovered damages of £55,000 and received a formal apology from the Sussex Assistant Chief Constable, David Miller who said he was “really sorry” for the unpleasantness of their arrest and detention.
The drone incidents were extremely high- profile media events, gathering a great deal of attention, given the massive disruption they were causing between 21 – 24 December, when many flights were scheduled for the imminent ‘holiday season’. There is no doubt that Sussex Police were under great pressure to ‘get a result’ and this is probably what led to the premature, and ultimately clearly incorrect, decision to arrest the Gaits.
This is sadly not the only occasion, however, when that particular Force and others have acted perhaps more out of consideration of ‘the Headlines’ rather than a properly measured assessment of the evidence. The somewhat understandable desire to ‘get a result’ because of media attention should not excuse the Police in cutting corners, if the result is the false imprisonment of innocent parties.
My client Nigel was arrested at Brighton train station on 2 June 2019 by Officers of Sussex Police. Whilst Nigel’s arrest was not quite as shocking as the armed raid on Mr and Mrs Gaits home, it was still a very traumatic experience. The Officers were in ‘plain clothes’ and grabbed Nigel’s arms without warning, only later telling him that they were Police; at first Nigel feared that he was being mugged.
What made the experience even more humiliating than it would have been anyway – at a public train station – was the fact that it happened in front of several of Nigel’s former work colleagues whom he had been in the process of meeting at the station.
The Officers searched Nigel, stating he was under arrest for ‘criminal damage’ and repeatedly referring to him by the name of “Steve”. Just as the Gaits clearly had an iron- cast ‘alibi’ to the wrongful accusations brought against them, Nigel was swift to offer the Officers evidence that he was not the man ‘Steve’ whom they apparently thought he was. He produced his driving licence and explained that his former colleagues could vouch him – but he was ignored by the Officers.
It became clear that the Officers were acting on the basis of a photocopied CCTV still of the suspect (whom they had evidently already identified by name), but they refused to show this to Nigel.
Nigel was then, totally unnecessarily, handcuffed (he was putting up no physical resistance at all) and marched to a Police vehicle, during which time the Officers informed Nigel that he was suspected of being responsible for a number of cat mutilations in the local area. This was a reference to the case of the “Brighton Cat Killer” – who had stabbed and wounded or killed 16 cats since October 2018. As I referred to above, the local police were clearly feeling under pressure to apprehend the culprit behind these very distressing attacks.
We now know that a man named Steve Bouquet was in fact the real target of the Police, as they arrested him later the same day, and he has subsequently been charged with these offences.
Nigel, who is in fact an animal lover, was disgusted to be accused of this horrible crime and strongly denied any involvement.
Conveyed to a police station, Nigel had his fingerprints, DNA and photograph taken and was placed in a cell in a state of shock, anger and bewilderment. He had never before been arrested and found himself undergoing a totally shocking, alien experience.
Approximately 5 minutes into his incarceration in the cell, Nigel was visited by an Officer who blithely informed him that this was a case of ‘mistaken identity’ and he was to be immediately released.
Although he was promptly released, the end of his arrest was far from being the end of the impact of this incident upon Nigel. He had physical injuries to his wrists which cleared up relatively quickly, but psychological scars which did not. Nigel felt as though his world had been turned upside down, felt threatened and vulnerable, and experienced thoughts of suicide. He now has to attend a support group to cope with the ongoing effects of this gross misjudgment by the Police.
In response to the claim which I have now brought on behalf of Nigel, Sussex Police initially denied any wrongdoing by their Officers, not withstanding that they have accepted that my client was “an entirely innocent party”. Undeterred, on threat of Court proceedings, the Police have now made an offer of settlement. The offer is not currently acceptable to my client and the litigation will continue until such time as suitable terms are put forwards by the Police, which I would hope will include an apology in the same terms as offered to Mr and Mrs Gaits.
In neither the case of the Gaits, nor that of Nigel, does the distressing/ disruptive nature of the crime committed, nor the fact that these were crimes garnering considerable publicity, justify slipshod Policing or the unlawful arrest of wholly innocent people. Although Sussex Police are currently adopting an official stance that Nigel was, in effect, ‘collateral damage’ in their pursuit of the ‘cat killer’ (they have even stated that he should be pleased with them for catching the “real suspect”) neither Nigel nor anybody else should have to tolerate or accept being subject to false imprisonment because the Police are under pressure to get an arrest ahead of a correct and careful consideration of the evidence, and this will be reflected in the eventual damages award which I will secure for him.