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How Police Uncover and Investigate Indecent Images

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Indecent image offences are incredibly serious, with the accompanying sentences being severe where a guilty verdict is reached. The police will generally turn up at the door to commence their contact with you.

The police and prosecuting authorities are required to follow a strict set of procedures when uncovering and investigating indecent image offences.

Here, we discuss exactly what steps the police are required to take and what an indecent images offence investigation looks like.

What are the initial stages of an indecent images investigation?

Child Protection Services, and relevant law enforcement agencies, are able to run a range of different programs on internet search engines which contain specific algorithms that capture search terms which are commonly used by individuals when viewing indecent images. Message threads and call logs can also often be detected.

If these programs detect that an individual has accessed indecent images, their IP address will be supplied to the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction for that particular region. Following this, an application is made under RIPA 2000 (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) to use the user’s internet provider to request the user’s registered details.

It is important to note that such an application must satisfy the Information Commissioners’ guidance of detecting and preventing crime by being proportionate, legitimate, and necessary where no other type of application or discovery could find or expose the user’s details.

Once the individual’s personal information is received from the internet provider, intelligence checks such as voters register, PNC, and criminal intelligence database checks are carried out. These checks are essential to identify risks and also serve as data to be used when laying any information at the Magistrates’ Court to obtain a warrant, as the Magistrate needs to be satisfied that sufficient investigations have been done before granting a warrant. 

How do the police obtain and execute a warrant?

A police officer will need to attend the Court and in-camera lay information before the Magistrate that it is necessary to gain access to the premises and that it should be carried out in such a way to prevent loss or damage to the sought evidence.

A warrant can be granted under the Protection of Children Act 1978 or under Section 8 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. The application normally contains the information document, a pre-typed warrant (2 copies) for the Magistrate to sign, and a police inspector’s authorisation permitting attendance at the Court. The officer is placed under oath and is duty bound to answer any questions the Magistrate has regarding the granting of the warrant.

Once the warrant is granted, the address or premises are attended by sufficient officers in possession of the warrant. Entry is normally under persuasion, as opposed to a forced entry, meaning the police can enter the premises once contact with the occupier is made.

The occupants are identified, and they are informed why the police have attended their property. The police may seize all viable devices capable of downloading, storing, or communicating the data which needs to be recovered for evidential purposes.

On leaving the premises after the completed search, the police should supply various documentation. The remaining occupiers should be left with a copy of the warrant and a search form listing the devices seized. Typically, the suspect is placed under arrest and transported to custody, but it is not unusual for the suspect to be invited for a voluntary interview as an alternative.

How does an indecent images interview work?

The interview is preliminary and will address questions such as whether the suspect has visited the sites in question and whether or not the individual has a sexual interest. At this stage, various other factors will be established. This will include whether the internet is secured, whether any other person has been given access to the internet or devices at any stage, or whether, at the relevant time of the offence, the device was elsewhere, for example, being serviced at a computer shop. This is not an exhaustive list of potential questions.

If a suspect is arrested following this stage, they will typically be bailed with the condition not to have any contact with children under 18 years old, including family members such as nieces or nephews.

Who else will be involved in an indecent images offence?

Information about an arrest will also be shared with the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC), which comprises of police officers, social services and local government. In the case of a person who has an occupation involving children or vulnerable persons, their employer may be informed if the custody officer believes they have a relevant occupation. For teachers, OFSTED would be informed, as would any professional body.

Strictly, there is no media involvement at this stage. This situation alters if the case finds its way through the open court system. A suspect will be informed if this is likely.

How are devices interrogated in indecent image offences?

Devices will be interrogated carefully so as not to alter or corrupt any data. For example, a ‘bridge’ device is used by joining the suspect’s device to the officer’s computer to make an exact copy of the information on the suspected computer’s hard drive.

This duplicate then becomes a working copy. All images are viewed and appropriately categorised as Category A, B or C. These are bookmarked and revisited to ensure correct classification.

For more information on the classification of indecent images, read our blog on the sentencing guidelines for indecent images.

From here, the officer will draft an mg11 statement on the process that has been completed and the discoveries made. It is not necessary for the CPS to view the book-marked images before considering charges.

When does the Crown Prosecution Service become involved?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will be invited to consider charges where indecent images have been found on the respective devices. The police make no decisions on disposal; thus, the matter is referred to the CPS.

When indecent images of children are found on a suspect's electronic device, careful consideration is required to decide which charge is the most appropriate. Such a determination will be case specific.

In cases where there is evidence that the suspect has published or distributed a prohibited image, prosecutors should consider whether they are able to charge the suspect with an offence contrary to the Obscene Publications Act 1959 rather than the offence of possession of a prohibited image.

Deciding on ‘possession’ or ‘making’

Prosecutors must bear in mind what needs to be proved in respect of possession of the images. Much will depend on (a) the location of the images on the device, (b) how they came to be located there, and (c) how accessible or viewable they are in that location without specialist knowledge or software.

For example:

  • A person who views an image on a device, which is then automatically cached onto its memory, would not be in possession of that image unless it can be proved that the individual knew of the cache.
  • A person who downloads an image from the internet and then deletes it such that it is ultimately recovered in the unallocated space or clusters will not be in possession of that image unless it can be proved that the individual has the wherewithal to retrieve it.

Contact our indecent images defence lawyers today

For a free initial consultation, urgent specialist advice, immediate representation, or to speak to us confidentially about allegations of producing, possessing or distributing indecent images of children or extreme pornography, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

You can contact our dedicated indecent images defence lawyers in London, Birmingham, and Manchester by telephone on:

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24/7 legal representation for indecent images offence allegations

Please get in touch for a free initial consultation with one of our expert criminal defence solicitors, as well as immediate representation and advice on dealing with allegations relating to indecent images of children or extreme pornography.

We are available to represent clients all over England and Wales at any time, so please contact our Emergency Number at 07836 577 556.