I recently helped a reader settle a claim against the armed response unit of the Metropolitan Police for an unlawful stop and search and a malicious strip search. The claim was settled without the claimant having to commence court proceedings, and upon issue of a single letter of claim.
On 5th January 2017, at about 1am Mr. D.V. was walking along Coldharbour Lane in South East London when he noticed a police armed response vehicle approaching him. The vehicle slowed, made a U-turn and began to follow him. As he crossed over, the van pulled alongside and a police officer leapt out, ordering D.V. to stand against a nearby wall. Three firearms officers, PC Denby, PC Holden and PC Burch exited the vehicle and informed D.V. that they would be searching him under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The reasonable grounds for suspicion stated at the the time were that D.V was ‘acting suspiciously.’ No mention of a smell of cannabis or any explanation as to why they suspected D.V. was carrying drugs.
The search was negative and D.V. was handed over to two uniformed officers who were instructed to take him back to the station and strip search him. These officers later admitted that they had no idea what it was they were searching for, nor did any of them bother to seek authority to conduct the search from a senior officer (a necessary procedure for a strip search). Instead, they blamed the armed officers, believing that the appropriate authority had already been sought and insisting that ‘they were only following orders’. Police officers should never blindly follow the orders of their colleagues or seniors. In the absence of their own reasonable suspicion any arrest or search is likely to be rendered unlawful.
The strip search was conducted in such a way as to bypass all legal procedures and humiliate the claimant even further. The claimant was asked to strip naked in full view of officers who had nothing better to do than be entertained.
All officers involved attempted to dodge accountability by pleading amnesia. As always with police officers who are subject to a complaint, they struggled to recall the events with any clarity. Conveniently, they also failed to keep any official records of the arrest and search. Those who conducted the search insisted it was the firearms officer’s job to do so, who in turn blamed the non-firearms officers.
D.V. contacted me and asked me to assess whether or not he had a potential claim against the Metropolitan Police. He also forwarded me the completed police complaint investigation into the matter.
What was interesting about this case is that it was the first time that I have seen a police complaint investigation that has been handled impartially and honestly. I almost fell off my chair reading it. It was as though the report had been compiled by a solicitor (or at least somebody with legal training) who was entirely independent of the force itself. It did not sound remotely like the majority of reports whose sole purpose, it seems, is to excuse all officers of all wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, this didn’t dissuade officers from ‘re-imagining’ what few facts they hadn’t already conveniently forgotten. The accounts each officer gave were so dissimilar and disparate from anything that resembled reality, it’s little wonder the lawyers were so keen to settle this claim out of court.
What became clear from the police’s account of the incident is that the true reason the ‘suspect’ had been stopped had nothing to do with the suspicion of carrying drugs, but because he had dared to glance, several times, at the armed response vehicle as it followed him along the street. The police seem to believe that any member of the public who is rightly wary of them, should be treated as a criminal. The police have no powers to stop and search someone simply on the grounds that they ‘look suspicious’.
Another familiar theme that arose from this complaint was the police’s de facto excuse for justifying a malicious search. And that is to accuse the person stopped of smelling of cannabis. In this instance, the police failed to mention this on the spot and instead attempted to use it as a retrospective excuse. Fortunately the officers were not give the chance to conspire and pool their excuses, because the claimant – despite the abuses he suffered – did not give the police any advanced warning that he intended to complain about them, let alone sue them. It is extremely important that you never tell the police that you intend to complain about them, before you actually make that complaint, as to do so could result in them attempting to cover their backs and pool their stories.
D.V. is a black male, but at no point did he claim that the police’s treatment of him was racially motivated. In all honesty it would have damaged the claim more than helped it, because the police will go to considerable lengths to prove they are not racist. It is unwise to play the race card, or any minority card, when suing the police unless you want them to make a concerted effort to cover over all wrongdoing.
The claim was settled for £4000 within 2 months of issuing the letter of claim. I don’t participate in settlement negotiations after the letter of claim has been issued and it is up to the claimant to decide what he believes is an acceptable compensation level (within reason and precedent) and to enter into the necessary agreement with the target force.