Pulling the plug: PNC errors lead to wrongful arrest

I was reading this week about the recent incident in which the entire Police National Computer system crashed, as a result of an engineer pulling out the ‘wrong cable’ – bringing to mind the phrase (“For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.”).

Police Forces nationwide were described as being thrown into ‘chaos’ as they were deprived of access to the PNC for over 10 hours. This is the computer database which officers rely upon to carry out checks on the identity and legal status (and history) of individuals and vehicles and has been described as the “backbone of the country’s policing system.” 

The situation escalated such that two emergency “gold command” meetings of the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) had to be convened, with senior officers complaining that Policing was virtually impossible in the absence of the information flowing through the PNC network.

Fortunately, it seems that the missing plug was eventually put back into its socket and ‘business as normal’ resumed without most members of the public being aware that the outage had ever occurred. 

Clearly, in today’s interconnected, online world any business or profession is going to be significantly hampered by their computer systems “crashing” in this manner, although I would hesitate to think that the Police were as badly affected as has been suggested. A lot of front line, day to day policing work can be performed by human eyes and ears alone, as can investigative work. After all, Sherlock Holmes didn’t need a PC!

But joking aside, I would hope that Officers do not become overly dependent on the PNC in their day to day functions, not only because such technical errors as this could easily occur again (or even worse, a deliberate cyber attack from terrorists or hostile state actors could be perpetrated) but because a slavish adherence to what the PNC says, as if it were the font of all knowledge, or an infallible oracle, can cause significant harm to individuals, as the ongoing case of my client Stephen Santos demonstrates. [Name changed for anonymity whist the matter proceeds.]

In November 2019, Stephen had just returned to the UK after working abroad in Spain. He is a self- employed musician. No sooner had the plane landed and taxied down the runway at Stansted then Stephen was shocked to see 4-5 officers of Essex Police board the plane…and even more shocked when he realised they had come to arrest him under a warrant issued by Bromley Magistrates Court.

The warrant was not for Stephen; he was an entirely innocent man. The warrant directed the Police to arrest an individual known as Emmanuel Salvini, yet the Essex officers arrested Stephen on the basis of information on the PNC indicating that Salvini had in the past used the name of “Stephen Santos” as an “alias”.

I think that most people reading this blog would pause at this point and raise an obvious objection, which, sadly, the Officers acting in obedience to the PNC log, do not appear to have considered. It was known that Salvini was the wanted man, and Santos only an alias of his…how therefore could my client “be” Salvini when he was manifestly not using an alias but was in possession of a passport confirming his actual identity as the “real” Stephen Santos?

Sometimes, it seems, common sense can be unplugged as easily as cables can…

Despite Stephen’s entirely legitimate protests, the Officers took him into custody and he was detained for over 40 hours before being produced before Bromley Magistrates, where the Court staff, applying more common sense, quickly realised that he was not Emmanuel Salvini and released him. 

There is no doubt that Stephen deserves to be compensated for this gross deprivation of his liberty, but so far common sense in terms of dealing with the claim seems to be as far afield as it was when the Essex posse pulled up at the airport. 

Essex Police are hiding behind the E-border Alert on the PNC, which linked the name Stephen Santos to Emmanuel Salvini (notwithstanding that Santos’s true ID should have been blindingly obvious when the Officers saw his travel documentation); they pointed the finger at Cambridgeshire Police and/or the Metropolitan Police – Cambridgeshire on the basis that they were the force which had, several years before, listed Stephen Santos as an ‘alias’ of Salvini, and the Met on the basis that they had uploaded the warrant issued by the Magistrates Court onto the PNC. Both of those Forces, to whom I was duly obliged to present claims, have thus far denied any liability and have sought to turn the blame back upon Essex.

As the representative of Cambridgeshire Police put it –

In respect of your client’s arrest at Stansted Airport, we note that he had just arrived on an inbound flight from Europe. We therefore presume that he was travelling on a genuine passport in the name of [Stephen Santos]. If that was the case then his true identity on the day of his arrest was not in doubt. 

In order to preserve Stephen’s rights under the Human Rights Act (for infringement of his Article 5 right to liberty and security of person) I have now had to commence proceedings against all three Police Forces, as well as the Border Force (who generated the E- Border Alert) and the Ministry of Justice as being responsible for the data processing activities of Bromley Magistrates. 

I can only hope that common sense will, soon and finally, prevail and one of the Defendants deal promptly with Stephen’s claim so as to avoid escalating legal costs. But this is just one of the many cases that I have been involved in where innocent members of the public have suffered as a result of law enforcement officers or agencies “thinking with their PNCs” rather than their heads. 

The PNC must exist as a tool to assist, not replace human policing. 

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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