Published Date: 14.01.2014
The PSNI have accepted a Police Ombudsman recommendation to improve the way they handle seized money following an Ombudsman investigation into a complaint that police stole thousands of pounds during a recent house search.
The formal recommendation was made under powers granted to the Ombudsman which allows it to suggest changes to police procedures if, during the course of an investigation, it sees aspects of policing it believes could be improved.
The allegation of theft was made by a man whose property was searched under warrant by police officers who were searching for stolen goods. He alleged that a total of over £28,000 in cash was removed from the house by the police, yet following their investigation which resulted in no criminal or civil proceedings being taken against the owner, he claimed that the sum handed back was over £3000 short.
The man made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman’s Office alleging that the police must have either stolen or mislaid the ‘missing’ money.
The Ombudsman’s investigation into the complaint obtained all relevant police documentation and identified 11 officers either involved in the search or the subsequent handling of the money seized. It was established through interviews with these officers and an analysis of the documentation that large sums of cash were found in different parts of the house. This money was immediately bagged on-site using a number of tamperproof evidence bags. These were marked individually, listing where they were found, and dealt with in line with PSNI instructions and good practice.
Later that day these bags were handed over to another police officer for counting and safe-keeping. The actions of this officer became the focus of the Ombudsman’s investigation.
Under questioning, he admitted that the day after he was handed the money he opened all of the sealed exhibit bags at the same time and counted their contents, but rather than counting the contents of each bag separately he counted all the money as one. Crucially this meant it was impossible to show subsequently how much money was seized from each part of the house. He vehemently denied, however, that the total amount seized came to the figure alleged by the complainant.
It was established during the Ombudsman’s investigation that at the time of the incident no internal guidance was available to officers on how to count money seized in such circumstances. However, the Ombudsman considered that a common sense approach should have been adopted when dealing with the money. It should have been clear to the officer that counting the contents of separate packages of money all together defeated the purpose of them being bagged individually in the first place, and was contrary to the normal methods of evidence gathering.
The officer’s mishandling of the money contributed to the confusion over the total amount of money seized. It also weakened the prosecution case against the owner of the property, as the police were unable to counter the man’s assertions about how much money was in each location when he explained why the money was there. Additionally, the Ombudsman considered that the officer’s actions exposed him and other police officers to allegations of theft.
The Ombudsman therefore recommended that the officer be disciplined. He also made a formal policy recommendation to the PSNI, stating that they should establish new written guidance for the way seized money is handled to help prevent similar incidents occurring in the future.
This resulted in a new ‘Cash Seizure’ flow chart which is now in operation throughout the PSNI.