I don't believe my client is guilty of drug dealing, and the manner of her arrest is suspicious. Has she been set up by the police? And can I prove it in court?by Alex McBride / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
The hot stillness of the August morning was about to be broken. Two cops holding a stubby battering ram, known as a “red rooster,” silently counted to three and attacked the door. On the third bang they were through, a wave of officers washing in behind them. Linda, a black woman in her early twenties, dozing in bed, heard the noise and sat up. A boy in his late teens called Michael had been asleep on a chair beside her; he knew exactly what was happening. “It’s a bust,” he said, slipping a wedge of bank notes into the bed. A few seconds later the cops were in the bedroom: “Police, nobody move!”
I met tearful Linda the next day in the cells. Her husband and two small children didn’t yet know she was in custody, charged, as was Michael, with possession with intent to supply class A drugs. Linda didn’t look like a dealer. She was healthily plump, had no previous convictions and had tested negative for drugs in the police station. The judge granted her bail on condition that she surrender her Jamaican passport, which she was unable to do because it was somewhere in the bowels of Lunar House in Croydon. She would have to stay put, perhaps for months or, if convicted, years. Linda was inconsolable. It was money that had landed her in jail. Her husband, a native Brit, had been making her feel bad that she wasn’t contributing to the family’s finances. She cut hair part-time but it wasn’t bringing in much. Linda had resolved to do better. It was a stroke of luck when her friend Coral, a prostitute, invited her to come and make some quick money in the provinces. Coral worked as a prostitute to feed her crack habit. For the first few days all went well, and Linda made money hand over fist. She stayed with Coral at her flat, which ever-enterprising Coral let other crack addicts use in exchange for free drugs. Linda sensibly hid her takings in her pants.
On the third day, to Linda’s mild surprise, Coral and her crack buddies got up early, locking the door from outside as they left. Linda was left alone with Michael, a young man from Jamaica who had also been staying with Coral. Linda assumed she wouldn’t be gone long and went back to sleep. The next thing she knew the police were in the room asking her about the drugs strewn about the room and the money in her knickers.
The premises search book, in which the police record where items have been found in a search, revealed something odd: the wraps of heroin and crack cocaine appeared to have been sprinkled on and around the bed like fairy dust. What drug dealer would leave their stash lying about like that? In someone else’s crack house, you keep your drugs out of sight. The timing of the police’s arrival, shortly after Coral’s exit, was also strange. It all seemed a bit too much of a coincidence. If the police were preparing to raid the flat, why not choose a time when Coral was in? Something was fishy. There was only one conclusion: Coral was setting Linda up and the police were in on it.
In criminal law the prosecution has a duty to disclose anything to the defence which might undermine their own case or assist the defence case. To trigger this disclosure you have to reveal your client’s defence in a signed defence statement. For Linda’s defence of “fit up” to have any chance, she needed to find out as much about Coral and her relationship with the police as possible. Was Coral an informant (known in the trade as a covert human intelligence source, or CHIS for short)? What sort of payments was she receiving? On the face of it, if she were a CHIS, then she was one who had participated in the operation. It was the police’s secret to divulge. Linda found it hard to focus on all this. She missed her kids desperately and wanted to go home. Then her luck changed. Two weeks after her arrest, the judge decided that the home office was never going to find the passport and released her on bail. Linda was overjoyed. Spotting a chance to get some cash, she asked me if she or her husband could go to Coral’s flat to get Michael’s money, which the police hadn’t found in their search. My answer was no. It would be a disaster.
The prosecution’s response to Linda’s defence statement was to have a public interest immunity or PII hearing with the judge. PII hearings, held in the absence of the defence, reveal to the judge what information the prosecution wishes to withhold on grounds of public interest, in this case Coral’s role as a CHIS. The judge then decides whether the defence can still have a fair trial without the disclosure. Everyone had a secret in this case—Linda was moonlighting from her husband, Michael had his hidden money, and the police were hand in glove with double-crossing Coral. I could guess what might be going on, but I didn’t know. And I would never find out, because when the judge ordered disclosure of the police’s arrangement with Coral, the prosecution chucked the case against Linda and Michael. It was a score draw. All participants got to keep their lives and their secrets. Stepping out of court, I realised there was a final mystery. Who would be the first to Michael’s money? There were many candidates, including the police. Perhaps no one got it. That’s the thing about being a barrister—for all the confidences you’re told, you never know the truth.