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Plans asking rape victims to hand over mobile phones could be scrapped

Controversial ‘digital strip search’ plans asking rape victims to hand over their mobile phones so police can trawl through their texts, social media and photos could be scrapped after a furious backlash from campaigners

  • National Police Chiefs Council launched a controversial victim ‘consent form’ 
  • But the plans could now be torn up after a furious back clash from campaigners 
  • The plans told victims they must hand over mobiles or risk attacker going free
  • Nick Ephgrave, the NPCC lead for criminal justice, is ‘happy to revise’ the plans

Plans to ask rape victims to hand over their mobile phones could be torn up after a furious backlash from victims and campaigners.

In a major climbdown, police chiefs are reviewing the proposal for a ‘digital strip search’ allowing detectives to trawl through victims’ texts, emails, photos and social media.

It comes five days after the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) launched the ‘consent form’ giving access to phone data, with guidance telling victims they must hand over their mobiles or risk their attacker going free.

Nick Ephgrave, the NPCC lead for criminal justice, told the Daily Mail he is ‘happy to revise’ the plan and is meeting policing minister Nick Hurd to review the ‘digital device extraction’ form.

Victims and campaigners like Carrie Symonds (pictured), who was drugged by a serial rapist, have slammed the controversial plans which would allow police to trawl through photos, social media and texts of rape victims

Meanwhile, the NPCC, Crown Prosecution Service and College of Policing have also written to victims’ groups asking if improvements can be made to the way investigators handle victims’ and witnesses’ data.

On Monday, Mr Ephgrave and Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC said a new ‘digital extraction’ consent form had been signed off by police chiefs to standardise the way officers request mobile phone data from those alleging rape, sexual assault and other offences.

Victims are asked to hand over phones and other digital devices such as laptops, and warned: ‘If you refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which would enable the defendant to have a fair trial, then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.’

It prompted an avalanche of criticism from MPs and victims who likened it to a ‘digital witch hunt’. The former head of Scotland Yard Lord Hogan-Howe said it was a ‘backward step’ that would deter victims from coming forward.

Nick Ephgrave, the NPCC lead for criminal justice, now says that he is ‘happy to revise’ the plan

Yesterday Mr Ephgrave, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, said he was listening to victims’ concerns, adding: ‘We are very happy to revise this.

‘We will continue to engage with interested parties to actively consider how it might be improved, although it has been given to forces in its current format.’

Hollywood star refused to hand over her mobile 

A Hollywood actress called on women to join her legal against police yesterday as she revealed that officers dropped her sexual assault claim because she refused to hand over her phone.

The 40-year-old, who is mounting a legal challenge to the new consent forms, claims she was assaulted by a friend on a night out in East London.

When she went to the Metropolitan Police, she was asked for phone and Facebook messages between her and the suspect, which she was happy to provide. But when detectives asked her to hand over her entire phone record she refused.

‘Even criminals do not have to give over their phone to police,’ she said. ‘I was concerned at how information on my phone could be twisted to humiliate and discredit me.’

When her alleged attacker was asked to provide his phone, he refused. Last month officers told her they were closing the case on the basis that she did not want to hand over her entire phone contents.

He said it was ‘not dreamt up in a dark room – we consulted with victims’ groups and parties to get their views. We will continue to engage if anyone has a new idea.’

The Mail can also reveal that the number of women preparing to launch a legal challenge to the consent form may rise after four more came forward saying their rape investigations were dropped because they refused to hand over their mobile phones.

Two women have already instructed Harriet Wistrich, of the Centre for Women’s Justice. They include a Hollywood actress who claims she was sexually assaulted in London, but police dropped the case because she did not want to hand over her phone.

Many police forces already have a substantial backlog of digital devices to examine, with officers waiting months to check mobile phones for evidence.

Yesterday Mr Ephgrave said he understood victims would not relish the prospect of having their phones taken away for weeks, if not months. But he stressed officers were trying to strike a difficult balance between the interests of justice and the rights of victims to privacy after the disclosure scandal, when a string of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed after crucial evidence emerged at the last minute.

Among the most high profile was the case of student Liam Allan, then 22, who had charges of rape and serious sexual assault against him dropped when it emerged that the complainant pestered him for ‘casual sex’.

Miss Wistrich, who argues the forms are unlawful as they breach data protection, human rights and equality laws, said: ‘Police are obviously having to backtrack. This is quite embarrassing for them. It’s a sort of own goal – they set out to show they were doing the right thing in resolving disclosure and they completely forgot about victims in the process.’

Police and prosecutors say they only look at relevant material.

Four months on, and police still have my phone 

A sex attack victim whose case was raised by Harriet Harman in the Commons has revealed that her phone has still not been returned four months after it was taken by police.

The 33-year-old victim wrote to the Labour MP to describe how her phone was seized after she was attacked by a stranger. She said it was a ‘gross intrusion’ into her privacy and that of her friends. She told the Mail of her fury at police and prosecutors who have still not handed back her mobile four months on after she handed it over.

‘I feel like I am on trial already,’ she said. ‘To think that a private situation from many years ago could be considered relevant in a case about a stranger who attacked me in 2018 is unbelievable.’

Yesterday one of the victims taking legal action, identified only as Olivia, implored police to abandon the form. She was raped by a stranger after she got in a car she wrongly believed was her Uber, and said she felt ‘violated’ again when police asked her to provide seven years’ worth of phone data.

She added: ‘I’m extremely happy to hear that this is going to be reviewed. This form is like a digital witch hunt and it absolutely needs to be changed if there is going to be an improvement in the prosecution of rape cases.’

Another victim who was drugged by a serial rapist demanded a rethink.

Carrie Symonds, a former Tory political aide and the girlfriend of Boris Johnson, told the Mail: ‘This sounds encouraging but should have happened from the off.

‘I think most victims fully appreciate they must provide information from their phones that might be relevant to the case.

‘That could include, for example, messages between the victim and the accused or messages sent to friends in a certain time frame around when the alleged attack took place.

‘But that is not what is happening.

‘Instead police are demanding full access to years and years’ worth of intimate messages and pictures which have zero relevance to the case in question, and in doing so, are handing the defence deeply private information about a victim’s previous relationships and sexual history. This leads to victims feeling vilified in court.

‘Police need to rethink their approach to ensure the best chance of justice for both the victim and the accused.’

Mr Hurd said last night: ‘It’s vital police have the evidence they require to secure justice – but this must be strongly balanced with safeguarding victims’ privacy and ensuring nobody is deterred from reporting crimes.’

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