What To Do If You Are Wrongfully Arrested Because Your Car Has Been Cloned

All technological advancements bring with them both benefits and risks, and one such problem that I have been reflecting upon recently is the increasing number of cloned motor vehicles on the road, combining with the ubiquity of our modern surveillance systems to put innocent motorists at real risk of ‘identity theft’ resulting in wrongful arrest, fines or prosecution.

This was starkly highlighted by the Telegraph newspaper last year, which reported that complaints made by people to the DVLA about incorrect fines, penalties or correspondence being issued in regards to their vehicles had almost doubled between April 2019 and March 2020 from 656 to 1,105. It is suspected that this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a problem fueled by the easy availability of duplicate registration plates online; many of the companies which provide such services being based outside UK jurisdiction – for example, in Jersey – thereby circumventing laws requiring the purchaser of the plates to provide proper documentary evidence of his or her legitimate ownership of the original vehicle by production of photo ID and the V5C form.

It would therefore seem to be all too easy for criminals to obtain duplicate plates, and fit them to a car simply matching the make, model and colour of the vehicle bearing the original plates, thereby creating a ready made ‘getaway’ car which can – at a surface level at least – trick the eyes of our modern surveillance society – the ubiquitous CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. Latest Police data indicates that roadside ANPR cameras – whether in fixed locations, or carried on Police vehicles – submit an average of 60 million vehicle registration plate ‘reads’ to national ANPR systems daily. A record of all motor vehicles passing by each camera is made; this technology can then be used by law enforcement professionals to track any given vehicle’s movements around the country, provided there is a legitimate Policing purpose. Police will input the registration number of any ‘vehicle of interest’ and gets ‘hits’ from the database indicating every location in the UK where the said vehicle has passed an ANPR camera over the specified timeframe of the search – which could be going back over weeks, months or even years.

Cloning scams, as well as shielding the actual criminals, can of course throw suspicion onto the entirely innocent owner of the original vehicle, who remains entirely in the dark – until, in the worst case scenario, the Police come knocking on his or her door (or perform a violent/ shocking road- side stop) and blissful ignorance turns into a nightmare experience…

One such victim of a cloning scam was my client Richard Taylor; sadly, he would also become the victim of Police negligence in the form of an unnecessary and unjustified arrest, as I explain below.

Wrongfully Arrested because of Cloned Vehicle Plates

In April 2021, Richard was the registered keeper of a Mazda motor car. Entirely unbeknownst to Richard, on 26 April 2021 a Mazda of the same model, year and colour, bearing a “cloned” copy of his vehicle’s registration plate was taken to an ATS Euromaster garage in Wantage, Oxfordshire for a full service.

The driver of the Clone left the Clone’s keys with the garage and provided a mobile phone number. The Clone required work to the value of £675, namely four new tyres, replacement brake discs and pads. On 28 April the driver secretly returned and used a second key to take the Clone from the garage forecourt without paying for the works; however the Clone’s original set of keys were left in the garage. ATS staff reported this incident to Thames Valley Police the same day. An invoice for the work carried out – which included details of the specifications of the replacement tyres – was provided to the police, but officers neglected to seize as evidence the original car keys that had been left at the garage.

In the early hours of the morning of 12 May 2021, PC Royal and PC Johnson of Thames Valley Police, attended my client’s home in the Avon & Somerset area. His (legitimate) Mazda was parked immediately outside, and before entering the premises, PC Royal examined the Mazda and took pictures of its wheels.

Richard resides in a building made up of a number of apartments, and by ringing the communal bell and asking directions to my client’s apartment the Police officers thereby attracted the attention of numerous other residents, to my client’s subsequent shame and distress.

Richard, who is a man of entirely good character, then suffered a Kafkaesque awakening, with the officers knocking on his door, and then leading him away, under arrest for a crime of which he knew absolutely nothing. On being told that he was under arrest for ‘Making off without payment’, contrary to Section 3(1) of the Theft Act 1978, Richard was deeply shocked, but complied with the officer’s instructions and supplied them with the keys to his Mazda on request; nevertheless, despite his polite co-operation he was then humiliatingly handcuffed by PC Royal.

Richard was then conveyed to his nearest Police Station. On arrival, PC Royal was unable to take the handcuffs off using his key and had to ask for the assistance of an Avon & Somerset officer to do so (it seems the lock may have been damaged), causing my client pain to his wrists. The simple fact of the matter is that Richard should never have been handcuffed in the first place; it was a completely unnecessary and degrading use of force – although sadly all too common as a matter of Police practice.

During the booking in process at the Station, PC Royal showed to the Custody Sergeant the photographs that he had taken of Richard’s Mazda. The Custody Sergeant immediately expressed concerns that the tyres shown were different than those fitted to the Clone, as detailed in the invoice from the ATS garage. Furthermore, due to the build-up of dust and dirt on the alloy wheels it was clear that they had not been removed for some time.

Nevertheless, Richard was processed, obliged to give his fingerprints, DNA and have his photograph taken, and then interviewed under caution. Following interview, during which Richard stridently maintained his innocence, he was released at 04:45 and returned home by the same officers who had arrested him, still in a state of shock and bewilderment.

Just over a week later, Richard was informed there would be no further action. His custody record was updated with the following entry –

“The detainee is to be released without charge for the following reasons: From the OIC – This occurrence has been reviewed… and the decision has been made to NFA Taylor. It is quite clear that the vehicle used in this incident was on cloned plates. ANPR work has been done on our end and there have been no ‘hits’ in the Oxfordshire area.”

Richard quite rightly then submitted a complaint to the Professional Standards Department of Thames Valley Police which was upheld by Inspector Ford, who apologised to my client for his arrest. In the complaint report Inspector Ford noted that-

“Too much emphasis was placed on the vehicle plates used in the crime linking back to the complainant as the registered owner without sufficient professional curiosity or other corroborating evidence … As a finding, Officers could and should have done further enquiries before arresting the complainant and this is likely to have precluded the complainant as a suspect.”

Inspector Ford noted a number of failings in the investigation which led to my client being incorrectly identified as a suspect-

  • Subscriber checks had not been completed on the phone number left with the ATS garage prior to Richard’s arrest (which would have shown that the phone number had no connection to him);
  • ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) checks should have been completed much earlier on in the investigation which would have determined that, while there were ‘hits’ in the Avon & Somerset area (from my client’s legitimate Mazda), there had been no hits between the ATS garage in Oxfordshire, and my client’s home address, meaning the Clone had not travelled in that direction.
  • The Clone’s key could have been used to quickly determine whether Richard’s Mazda was the same vehicle – without any need for arrest – but Police had failed to take that key despite it being readily available at ATS.
  • PC Royal had incorrectly identified the tyres on Richard’s Mazda as the same as on the Clone’s invoice, and had failed to note the obvious wear and tear to those tyres (although the Custody Sergeant had picked up on this).

Furthermore, Inspector Ford noted the ‘disruption’ that arresting my client late at night had caused and expressed concern regarding the necessity for this given the significant delay that had already elapsed since the time of the first report of the offence (some 3 weeks).

This apology was welcome, but could not negate the significant adverse effects this incident had upon a man with no previous experience of arrest or custody. Richard suffered distress and anxiety; not only was he an innocent party, but several other residents of his building were aware of his arrest late at night, deepening the shame and humiliation of the incident; the timing of the arrest likely to suggest in the minds of witnesses that it was for a particularly serious offence. As a result, Richard suffered from disturbed sleep and nightmares and became deeply concerned that the arrest might be disclosed on a DBS check and impact upon his employment.

Additionally, Richard was acutely apprehensive that ‘lightning might strike twice’ and that he might be arrested again due to the activities of the ‘Clone’; he was understandably left with no confidence that the Police would handle any such further incidents better than they had the first.  As a result, he sold the Mazda at a significant loss a few weeks after these events, just to get it off his hands.

Police Failings Double the Damage

The wrongdoing in this matter undoubtedly originated with the user of the Cloned vehicle, who ripped off the ATS Euromaster garage, and clearly it was right that the Police pursue all reasonable lines of enquiry in an attempt to catch the ‘scam artist’ – but at the same time they were under a duty to ensure that in so doing they did not themselves break the law by effecting an unlawful arrest. As a result of their failure to do this, my client Richard ended up suffering a far more harrowing experience and longer lasting damage than did the original victim (ATS).

Both modern technology – in terms of the ANPR data available (which would have easily shown that Richard’s car had not travelled to/from Oxfordshire) – and good old fashioned common sense (realising that the Mazda’s tyres had evidently not been recently replaced, and/or bringing along the Cloned vehicle’s key, which was freely available to the investigating officers), if used promptly and proportionately, could have entirely averted Richard’s arrest and saved the Police themselves a considerable amount of time and resources in detaining and interviewing an innocent individual, and then having to deal with his legitimate complaint.

As a result of the complaint findings, the officer who had conduct of the investigation – PC Royal – has been identified as requiring urgent retraining owing to “omissions of attention to detail that demonstrate a significant area of learning and development for the officer.” Meanwhile, I am pursuing a claim on behalf of Richard against Thames Valley Police for wrongful arrest.

Richard’s claim is currently ongoing, but I am confident that he will receive substantial compensation from Thames Valley Police, as well as the ultimate deletion of Police database records of his unlawful arrest.

If you have been made a ‘double victim’ by a vehicle cloning scam being compounded by the Police wrongfully arresting you, please contact me for expert advice and representation: together we can hold the Police to account for any misuse of their powers, and thereby help encourage them to reform their practices and focus on their proper job – catching the real criminals.

Names have been changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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