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September 23, 2005

The implications of wrongful arrest

Yesterday's Guardian ran the story of the wrongful arrest of David Mery on its front page, a story he's written up in a lot more detail on his site.

‘LONDON (Reuters): - A London underground train station was evacuated and part of a main east-west line closed in a security alert on Thursday, three weeks after suicide bombers killed 52 people on the transport network, police said. A Transport Police spokeswoman said Southwark station was closed and Jubilee Line services suspended between Waterloo and Canary Wharf in the east London business district.’

This Reuters story was written while the police were detaining me in Southwark tube station and the bomb squad was checking my rucksack. When they were through, the two explosive specialists walked out of the tube station smiling and commenting ‘nice laptop’. The officers offered apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. Then they arrested me.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like a digital rights story, but a civil liberties story. And up to a point, it is. It's an absolute disgrace that someone can be arrested in the UK on the basis of having a rucksack, wearing a rain coat, and behaving in an entirely normal way on the London Underground system. It's imperative that we protest such kneejerk reactions by the police in the strongest possible terms, and that we let our MPs know that we do not accept that this sort of regime is necessary for the safety and welfare of the nation.

But this isn't an ORG matter, right?

Wrong.

This becomes a digital rights matter because the data collected by the police about David Mery is now sitting in the police database - his DNA, interview recordings, photograph, fingerprints, name, address, and whatever other details they take. Let's get this straight. David was arrested for no discernible reason, having committed no crime and, in fact, without there having been a crime for him to have been arrested on suspicion of. The charge of 'suspicious behaviour and public nuisance' is a ludicrous accusation, considering that he was doing what the rest of us do every day: waiting for a train.

David was released without charge, but his data wasn't. (Neither was some of the stuff that the police took from his flat.)

2005-08-31 Wednesday
09:00 I arrive at police station to surrender to custody as required by bail, and am joined by solicitor five minutes later. We are invited into a small room by a plainclothes police officer a further few minutes later. The officer tells us that it’s ‘NFA’ (no further action), explains that this means that they are dropping the charges, and briefly apologises. The officer (DS) in charge of the case is away from the station so the process of clearing up my case is suspended until he signs the papers cancelling the bail and authorising the release of my possessions. The meeting lasts about five minutes.

I send letters to the Data Protection Registrars of the London Underground, Transport for London (replied on 2005-09-05 that the ‘retention period for recording of stations is fourteen days’), the British Transport Police and the Metropolitan Police. The first three letters ask for any data, including CCTV footage, related to the incident on July 28, while the final one is much more generic asking for any data they have on me. They all have forty days to respond.

2005-09-08 Thursday
I talk to my solicitor about ensuring the Police return all my possessions, give us all the inquiry documents (which they may or may not do) and expunge police records (apparently unlikely to happen).

The solicitor sends a letter to the officer in charge of my case asking him to authorise the release of my possessions and forward us a copy of the custody record, and conveying to him how upset I am.

[...]

Under the current laws the Police are not only entitled to keep my fingerprints and DNA samples, but apparently, according to my solicitor, they are also entitled to hold on to what they gathered during their investigation: notepads of the arresting officers, photographs, interviewing tapes and any other documents they collected and entered in the Police National Computer (PNC).

The police have absolutely no reason to retain any data on David, but I fear that the chances of him being able to get his police records deleted are nil. Other than recording that he was wrongfully arrested, I see no good reason why they should retain his DNA, fingerprints, photographs etc., but reason seems to be increasingly absent from the way that security is handled in this country.

We will be keeping in touch with David to see what happens.