Bent coppers - when is too far?

Claims are flying about that undercover police officers were arrested, prosecuted and convicted while using their cover names in court.

This is serious because if true then the police officer would have not only committed a criminal offence, in one case it is suggested he was convicted of assaulting another police officer, but more importantly if that undercover officer gave evidence he would have taken an oath to tell the truth.  The first question his advocate would have asked him would have been along the lines, "would you please give your full name to the court?"  If he answers with his false name then he is lying to a court and thus committing a further offence of perjury.

I have seen reports that say senior officers authorised undercover officers to stand trial under false names.  If so then those officers are likely to be guilty of a conspiracy to commit perjury or pervert the course of justice.

Some police officers have been known to charge suspects with attempting to pervert the course of justice just for giving a false name when arrested, never mind at trial!

In certain circumstances I can see that it might be necessary to allow a police officer to stand trial under a false name so as not to jeopardise years of careful work; however, that is something that should be brought to the attention of the trial judge so that he or she can make a final decision as to what happens in his court.  If the judge decides that what is proposed is not on then the Crown can make a decision whether they proceed with the trial or protect their operation.  All sorts of reasons can be given for dropping a prosecution and discontinuing will not necessarily raise the suspicions of those being investigated if done properly.

If officers have lied to the courts and have committed violent offences against their own colleagues then you must question whether that officer has any value in the police force even where his actions were 'authorised', albeit in a seemingly unlawful way.  In years to come if I happen to become involved in a case where that officer gives evidence against one of my clients then his previous conviction for assault will come as being relevant because he denied an offence to a court and was disbelieved - in other words he either lied when entering his plea and lied when he gave his evidence (if indeed he did give evidence).  His word as a police officer is simply worthless.

Perhaps more seriously is the culture at very senior levels of the police that these allegations, if true, reveal.  When does the actions of an undercover officer cross the line from being necessary to an investigation to being simply bent coppers?  Are these senior officers actually up to the job of making that decision? 

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office regularly rotates its overseas staff to stop them going native, that is becoming friends with and ultimately more concerned with the needs and wants of the locals where they are posted than with the interests of the UK. 

Where a serving police officer is going around inflicting acts of violence upon other officers - and according to some accounts marrying one of the people he is supposed to be gathering intelligence on - you have to question whether he has gone native.  More worryingly is the apparent inability of his handlers to recognise that this man was going beyond the acceptable boundaries of his operational role.

Some readers may think that I am naive about the realities of undercover work - I am not.  Society faces a simple choice.  You can allow undercover police officers to do whatever they like with little or no outside checks in which case be prepared to see the boundaries of acceptable behaviour move further and further in the direction of what we currently call police corruption and what is today acceptable for undercover work may be what is acceptable for normal bobbies tomorrow.  Or, you can require that serving police officers act within the boundaries of the law that they have sworn to uphold and you can put in place a proper system for scrutinising undercover operations.


  1. An undercover name, if used for long enough, may become just as "real" a name as any other, as a matter of English law. The position is not quite as clear-cut as it may seem.

  2. In fact there is a very nice paragraph in Archbold (I think from memory) that asserts that an Englishman may use whatever name he choses and there is nothing in law to prevent him so doing. I have in fact relied upon that in court during quite a lengthy submission that must have gone down well as the judge gave me a wink and a "well done" as he threw the Crown's case against my client out.

    However, what occurred here is different in my submission. Because, the code name was never intended to be the name by which he is properly known - it is a false identity and is deliberately false for the specific purpose of hiding the officer's true identity.

    In those circumstance, I would submit that giving details to a court of an identity that has been specifically devised to hide your real identity can only be perjury! If the officer had genuinely abandoned his "real" identity and become truly known by the undercover name then that would be different. However, he did not abandon his real name as he remains, to this day I believe, a serving police officer using his original name - indicating that he never really adopted the false identity as his own and thus, in my opinion, rendering him liable to a prosecution for perjury and undermining his credability in any future cases where he gives evidence.

  3. By the way, are you the Nicholas Bohm who founded the Foundation for Information Policy Research?

  4. Don't you think there might be a case for allowing the deep development of such a cover in this manner?

  5. Anon, as I said in the post I can see circumstances where this sort of thing might be allowed. However, giving anybody the right to hide their identity on the nod of somebody from within their own organisation is a very dangerous path to tread. If the police do propose to do this sort of thing in a case then it should be cleared with a judge. I can see circumstances where the trial judge is not senior enough to make the decision and in those cases I would be happy for the decision to be made by the Resident judge of the circuit and even kept from the trial judge if necessary, although such circumstances will be very very rare! However, I do not think that any organisation should be allowed to commit or authorise the commission what amounts to a criminal offence with no outside oversight.

  6. Your argument rests on the idea that a person has only one real name at a time. That seems to me to be without foundation in principle, and I've never heard of a case that decides the point in that sense.

    If the author of the Smiley stories gave his name in the witness box as John le Carré, I suggest that it would be absurd to think this was perjury, even though he adopted the name only for literary purposes and to conceal his other name. The point turns on use: a name is real if enough people know a person by it for long enough, even if it isn't the user's only name, or the name everyone knows him by. That's just how names work, and English law has had the maturity to live with it.

    (And I'm the Nicholas Bohm who is one of the trustees of the Foundation for Information Policy Research - I must reluctantly disclaim the honour of being among the founders.)


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