9 January 2014, after a bit of prompting, the Information Commissioner’s Office have confirmed to me that they are looking into whether Staffordshire Police’s twitter campaign was compliant with the Data Protection Act
Is Staffordshire Police’s social media campaign naming those charged with drink-driving offences fair and lawful?
A month ago I wrote about media coverage of Sussex Police’s crackdown on drink-driving. I was concerned that the impression was being given by the media that the police were “naming and shaming” people who had merely been charged – not convicted – with the offence. I asked Sussex Police if they were happy with the words attributed to them by the Eastbourne Herald but they chose not to reply (which I suppose is one way of dealing with enquiries from the public).
I have to concede that, in that instance, it was not clear whether the police themselves were suggesting people were guilty of an offence before any conviction. However, I heard today (thanks @primlystable) that Staffordshire Police have been running a campaign which is much more overt in its suggestion that people who have been charged with drink-driving offences can be called “drink drivers”. They have been running a social media campaign using the hashtag #drinkdriversnamedontwitter, and, they announce, there has been “overwhelming support” for it
Overwhelming support #drink drivers named on twitter
Staffordshire Police has received tremendous support for its name and shame tactic to reduce the number of drink-drivers.
Nearly 500 people completed an on-line survey asking whether they supported naming people charged with drink-drive offences and whether it would help people think about the consequences of this type of offence.
But the blurring of the line in that press release between the guilty and the not-proven-guilty is highly problematic. If someone has merely been charged with an offence, it is contrary to the ancient and fundamental presumption of innocence to shame them for that fact. Indeed, I struggle to understand how it doesn’t constitute contempt of court to do so, or to suggest that someone who has not been convicted of drink-driving is a drink driver. Being charged with an offence does not inevitably lead to conviction. I haven’t been able to find statistics relating to drink-driving acquittals, but in 2010 16% of all defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts were either acquitted or not proceeded against 1.
I asked the Attorney General’s Office (by twitter) what it thought of the use of the hashtag against the names of those merely charged with an offence, but, in saying
Tweets are same details automatically given to Magistrates’court and made public at hearing – not contempt in this case
I think they rather missed the point – it wasn’t the naming of charged people which concerned me, it was the association of the name with the hashtag. And, in an excellent response on twitter @richgreenhill said
You’d be similarly sanguine about tweeting certain names and “#phonehacker” right now?
But I’ve also asked the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) whether the practice is compliant with Staffordshire Police’s obligations under the first data protection principle (Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)) to process personal data fairly and lawfully. The ICO has shown itself commendably willing recently to challenge unfair processing, and has, for instance, served DPA enforcement notices against Southampton City Council for making it a licensing requirement that taxi drivers have continuous CCTV-with-audio in their cabs, and against Hertfordshire Police for its automatic number-plate recognition “ring of steel” around Royston. I would urge the ICO to consider whether this current campaign warrants some regulatory action.
As I was writing this piece I saw a news item in which a traffic lawyer has called for the Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) to resign as a result of the campaign, saying
By his comments he is now presuming that everyone named by his officers are guilty as charged even before they have appeared before a court. In other words he is demonstrating a cavalier disregard for the presumption of innocence.
His comments have potentially prejudiced every drink driving case before it is heard.
This pitches it stronger than I have, but I also note that Matthew Ellis, the PCC, has said in response
No-one will be named where there is any doubt
That is deeply concerning: it is no part of the police’s role to determine or pronounce on someone’s guilt or innocence.
1.Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice Statistics, Quarterly Update to December 2010