The arrest of 660 suspects under Operation Notarise has echoes of Operation Ore, the last major police investigation into internet based indecent photographs of children.
In Operation Ore, US law enforcement officials passed details of 7,500+ UK credit card users linked to the Texas-based Landslide web portal to the UK police. Landslide contained links to pornographic sites mostly involving adults, but some had indecent photographs of children. The information was used to justify the issuing of search warrants and arrests of suspects. Over 4,000 searches were conducted, 3,744 arrests were made, with 1,848 charged and 1,451 convictions secured.
Typically where images were recovered from computers or other electronic storage devices such as mobile phones and memory sticks, suspects would be charged with possession of those images, making an image (i.e. downloading an image) or distribution of an image if they had shared an image by, for example, sending it electronically to another person.
However, in a number of instances where no images were recovered prosecutions were brought for ‘incitement to distribute’ indecent photographs i.e. by requesting unlawful images by entering credit card details with the intention that they are sent to the requester.
Police searches were, and are, typically carried out in the early morning. Police will enter a suspect’s property armed with a search warrant and seize electronic devices that have a storage facility such as a computer, mobile phones and memory sticks. The suspect will be arrested and conveyed to a police station where he will be interviewed under caution. Typically he will then be bailed to return whist the electronic devices are forensically examined. It is not uncommon for searches to be carried out at the suspect’s place of work, and computers etc can be seized. Social Services are often involved where the suspect has children, and in a number of instances suspects were requested to live away from the family home during the course of the investigation. The effect on the suspect’s home and work life is often devastating regardless of the outcome of the investigation.
It is sometimes assumed that these are ‘cut and dried’ investigations’ i.e. that should your name appear on a list of suspects then the evidence will be recovered from forensic examination and offenders prosecuted. However our experience in representing over 100 suspects arrested in relation to these allegations demonstrated that for a significant minority of suspects the investigations were flawed.
Cases we dealt with included the following –
1) A mother of impeccable character arrested at the family home in Chelsea on New Year’s Eve after the the family computer was taken for repair. Indecent photographs were recovered that had been deleted but were found in the slack space of the hard drive. She was arrested and questioned on the basis that the computer was registered in her name. Her teenage sons were later all arrested and interviewed. However, a careful examination of the files in the slack space by our forensic expert revealed them to contain numerous Polish language files. It transpired that the family’s Polish housekeeper was in fact responsible for the images and accepted a caution for accessing images.
2) A respected medical consultant was arrested when his credit card details were linked to the Landslide web portal. No unlawful images were found on his computer. However, he was told by police that he must have seen a webpage saying ‘Click Here For Child Porn’ when he entered the Landslide portal. On being told he would otherwise be prosecuted he accepted a police caution rather than face the embarrassment of fighting the case in court with the attendant publicity. It later transpired that the information that Landslide users would see a‘Click Here for Child Porn’ webpage when accessing Landslide and which had routinely been used to justify arrests and prosecution was incorrect. As a result we were able to have the caution overturned and he was able to return to medical practice.
3) A civil servant was arrested after a lawful gay pornographic DVD – meant for the client – was sent to the wrong address. The recipient complained to the police about the nature of the DVD and they subsequently visited the client and took away his computer. An examination of the hard rive revealed deleted unlawful heterosexual images of children. Careful analysis of the documents close to the unlawful images revealed that they belonged to an entirely unrelated individual. It transpired that our client had purchased a replacement hard drive from a market leading company which, unknown to him, contained a refurbished (not new) hard drive containing these images. No charges were brought.
Defending allegations relating to computer crime are complex. It is vital that the solicitor who is instructed is experienced in forensic computer examinations and the limitations of digital evidence. Should you be involved in an investigation, or be concerned that you might be the subject of an investigation please call David Campbell to discuss this very specialist area.