Prosecutions against suspected sex offenders in South Yorkshire have been dropped by police following a full review of all current investigations – sparked by a prosecution in London where it emerged only days into the trial of a student that his alleged victim has sent him electronic messages pestering for sex – the force has revealed.
And in future sex crime suspects will be asked specific questions about whether they believe there is information on their social media accounts, or those of the person complaining, which may help to clear their name.
The London case was caused by investigators failing to find messages on the woman’s telephone – among tens of thousands – which discredited the allegations the woman complaining had made.
Downloaded messages should have been passed to defence lawyers, under ‘disclosure’ rules which mean information the prosecution does not intend to use must be made available, but that did not happen because police mistakenly believed there was nothing of importance to the case.
It has sparked action nationally to deal with the current situation around social media and smartphones, where one handset can contain a mountain of information – raising questions over what level of investigation into the contents of social media accounts is appropriate.
Work is going on with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service, but a review of all active cases involving allegations of sex crimes has been conducted in South Yorkshire as a precautionary measure, with some now dropped.
However, Assistant Chief Constable Tim Forber said the decisions to drop cases in South Yorkshire had been taken after a review highlighted evidential problems, rather than issues surrounding disclosure.
The force had been asked to report back to a public accountability board, held by the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings.
He said: “We have undertaken a full review of rape and serious sexual offence cases under way. In a small number of cases, prosecution has subsequently been dropped, pre-court.
“They have been dropped not for disclosure issues in the way they were in London, it is just on closer examination it has been apparent there has been insufficient evidence,” he said.
The question which has emerged from the London case, involving student Liam Allen, who has since received an apology from the Metropolitan force, is what constitutes “reasonable enquiries” regarding digital media and social media accounts, he said.
“The bottom line is that each case is unique and has to be treated on its merits,” he said.
“We are also developing some training where in interview we are asking very specific questions of suspects around digital media; is there anything on digital media accounts which undermines the credibility of their (the complainant’s) account?
“If they say no comment or no, it is a very different proposition. If they say ‘yes’ there is a duty on the police to go and look. How do you define the parameters? It is very difficult.
“What it will lead to in the long run is the potential lengthening of investigations. What is absolutely critical is for the Crown to agree the parameters with the CPS,” he said.