If you’ve been following my Youtube channel, then you will know that I am currently pursuing a private prosecution against a Derbyshire Police Officer who assaulted a member of the public in November 2019. This is the first private prosecution I have been involved in and although a summons has been issued and a plea hearing scheduled, the process has been less than straightforward. This is mostly due to the Covid outbreak which has repeatedly delayed matters, but the Police, the Court and the CPS have also played a part in the delay.
On the 21st November 2019, PC Mark Knights was attending a non-emergency incident in Ambergate, Derby. The police’s presence had already halted traffic, and Knights found it difficult to get through. He asked the driver of the vehicle ahead to pull to one side. The driver said he was unable to and suggested that if the officer waited he would be able to move forward with everyone else. Knights then began taking pictures of the driver’s vehicle. The driver retaliated by taking pictures of PC Knights. Allegedly, as the driver pulled away, PC Knights leant toward the window and called him a ‘fat cunt’. The driver stopped his vehicle and got out. He approached PC Knights and asked him to repeat what he had just said. It is then alleged that PC Knights responded by headbutting the driver in the face. The driver was thrown to the floor, cuffed, and placed in the back of a police van, assisted by Knight’s policing colleagues. A short while later the driver was released without charge.
The victim made a complaint to Derbyshire Constabulary. He was told that an officer from Professional Standards would be in touch, but was promptly ignored. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, no officer visited his home to take a statement and no complaint was recorded.
The victim was told about my website by a friend and he emailed me. After speaking with him (and his key witness), I suggested bringing a private prosecution against PC Knights. I offered to prepare the necessary documents to initiate the prosecution (“laying an information” as it is referred to by the courts) and determine the charges. Although the headbutt resulted in a split lip, the resulting injuries did not constitute Actual Bodily Harm, so a charge of Common Assault under s39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was more appropriate. But Knights was a serving police officer, who should be held to a higher standard of accountability and the charges should reflect that. As he had exploited his police powers and resources: by enlisting his colleagues to detain the victim in a police van in handcuffs, it seemed that he should be further charged under section 26 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 for corrupt or other improper exercise of police powers and privileges. I sent the Application for Prosecution along with the charge sheet to Derbyshire Magistrate’s Court and waited.
Meanwhile, Derbyshire Constabulary – after a 2 week delay – finally contacted the victim. They assigned a civilian from Derbyshire’s anti corruption unit, to investigate the matter: Richard Leighton. It was clear to me very early on that this ‘independent investigator’ was conducting an exculpatory investigation. This is a common tactic of police misconduct investigations where the police investigator ignores incriminating evidence, fails to interview key witnesses and takes his sweet time doing it (or not doing it as the case may be). That way, any summary offence the officer may have committed – such as common assault – crosses the threshold of the 6 month time limit in which to prosecute. Derbyshire police also failed to disclose to the victim that PC Knight’s wife worked in the Professional Standards Department of Derbyshire police.
When a police officer is under investigation of misconduct for a serious allegation, the relevant force is statutorily obliged to contact the IOPC to notify them of this. Derbyshire police failed to do so. So instead, I contacted the IOPC myself. I also informed them that the defendant’s wife worked for the same department that was investigating him. True to form, the IOPC ignored my communication. I have long believed that the IOPC are enablers and excusers of police misbehaviour and I was not surprised in the least by their indifference. I also contacted the Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner Hardyal Dhindsa, who as of recent changes in the police complaints process, has the authority – like all PCCs – to take control of certain complaints. He showed not the least interest either, and responded with a meaningless cut and paste reply. As a last ditch attempt, I brought it to the attention of Nigel Mills, the MP of the constituency where the incident occurred. He also ignored my communication.
THE FIRST HEARING
On the 10th February 2020, I was finally granted what can only be described as a pre-summons hearing at Derbyshire Magistrates’ Court to consider the merits of my application for prosecution. This is where the prosecutor, and the defendant appears before a district judge, so that the judge can determine whether or not – prima facie – the offence has been made out and a summons should be issued. A sometimes necessary step to prevent malicious or meritless prosecutions being brought by unscrupulous prosecutors who just want to drag defendants through the court for the thrill of it. Something that the police routinely do to innocent members of the public they have taken offence to, under the guises of a section 5 public order offence. Police prosecutions are never subjected to prima facie scrutiny by the courts, unlike private prosecutions, and the concept that any ‘vexatious police prosecutions’ will be weeded out at the initial plea hearing is a fallacy.
When I arrived at court, the defendant’s defence solicitor approached me in the hallway and asked me what the purpose of the hearing was. I found it remarkable that a solicitor – no doubt funded by the all powerful Police Federation – would be so clueless. It was true that the courts had not specified to either of us the nature of the hearing, but I’d at least bothered to make enquiries and familiarise myself with the criminal procedure rules. I explained to the solicitor that some private prosecutions were subject to pre-trial scrutiny by a judge under Part 7 of section 12 of the Criminal Procedure Rules, which states:
The court may determine an application to issue or withdraw a summons or warrant— (a) without a hearing, as a general rule, or at a hearing (which must be in private unless the court otherwise directs)
This rule states that the hearing must be in private unless the court otherwise directs. No directions were given prior to the hearing, and the first I knew the hearing would be in public was when everyone piled into the court room, including the civilian officer who was conducting the defective investigation – Richard Leighton. When I attempted to bring it to the attention of both the court usher, and the judge that I objected to the hearing being in public, I was ignored. Not only was I entitled to know whether the hearing would be in private or public in advance, I was entitled to know that such a hearing intended to call witnesses under oath, so that I could ensure that the necessary witnesses were in attendance. Luckily, I had anticipated the possibility of an ad hoc Grand Jury (without the jury) and brought everyone to court that was necessary and available. Including a reporter from the Derbyshire Telegraph.
From the outset of the hearing the judge repeatedly refused to hear my application in full and refused to recognise my rights under s6 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 to act as prosecutor. When I began reading out a brief summary of the incident, the judge snapped at me “Were you there? Did you witness it? I want to hear from someone who was actually there.” When I elected the victim at the back of the courtroom the judge declared to him “so you’re the one bringing the prosecution.” Any attempts I made at correcting the judge’s misunderstanding were ignored. It was clear to me that the judge had not familiarised himself with the Prosecution of Offences Act and was refusing to acknowledge my rights to privately prosecute and the hearing was therefore, defective from the outset. I would not allow myself to be sidelined by the judge, and I continued unabated and unintimidated, forced to make representations piecemeal throughout the hearing, via interjections. The judge also made the horrifying admission that he had not properly read the application. When I offered to show him a copy he declined to see it.
The victim was asked to give evidence under oath. He was clearly very nervous, and trembling in the witness stand. During questioning, he mentioned that the defendant’s wife worked in the professional standards department. The judge immediately shouted him down, stating: “These are very serious allegations you are making.” He was not permitted to continue. Had the judge made the atmosphere in the courtroom the least bit conducive, it would have been brought to his attention that the defendant’s wife was sat at the back of the courtroom!
When the police investigator – Richard Leighton – was asked to take the stand, he was given very different treatment. Firstly, he was excused from oath, asked leading questions and given the overall benefit of the doubt that his casual investigation deserved precedent over issuing summons. Leighton was also allowed to make representations on behalf of the CPS, despite him not having any authority to do so. The CPS hadn’t bothered to turn up to the hearing, even though I’d emailed them and invited them to appear. They had emailed me back to tell me they were aware of the case and would be in court on the day.
At the end of the hearing the judge accepted that a case had been made to issue a summons, but declined to do so on the basis that it could potentially prejudice the CPS if they decide to bring a prosecution. He did not elaborate on how my private prosecution could prejudice their case, given that they had statutory power to take over proceedings at any stage, and if they so desired, end them. The decision appeared to be predicated on the police investigator’s insistence that his investigation was pending, awaiting a ‘training instructor’s’ opinion as to whether headbutting a member of the public in the face was a suitable level of force in the circumstances. Something that, in my regard, should be a matter determined at trial, not at a pre-summons hearing. If the CPS had any serious reservations that their case could potentially be prejudiced then they would have sent someone on their behalf to communicate this to the court.
Subsequently, and to my dissastisfaction, the hearing was adjourned until April.
TAKING FURTHER ACTION
Everybody is entitled to a fair hearing under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is also enacted in English law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 6 isn’t isolated to a defendant’s rights. Private prosecutors are afforded these same protective rights.
The day after the hearing I telephoned a firm of solicitors in London who specialise in private prosecutions, and recounted some of what had happened. In their opinion the hearing was, as they put it, ‘a procedural impropriety’. It was clear that by the judge’s refusal to properly read the application, and his refusal to allow evidence that would support it, he was not in a position to correctly determine whether a prima facie case had been made, at least as far as the section 26 charge was concerned.
It wasn’t until March that Leighton finally deemed his investigation was completed and his ‘file’ was submitted to the CPS. Unsurprisingly the CPS decided that there was not enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of securing a conviction. I told the victim that he should seek a review of the decision via the CPS Victim Right to Review scheme, although I didn’t hold up much hope.
Once I discovered that the CPS had declined to prosecute Knights, it obviated the need for a second hearing in court. By now, lockdown rules were in force due to the Covid outbreak, and I did not see why I should have to take the obvious health risk of appearing at court for a second hearing when the judge had already admitted a prima facie case had been made. He either agreed to issue the summons or he did not. If he did not, I was more than ready to take the matter to Judicial Review. I therefore sent an application to the court a few days before the hearing asking that the summons be issued in my absence. The court responded a few days later telling me that a summons had been issued, but did not attach a copy. I was informed that a plea hearing was scheduled for May 9th. At this hearing the defendant would have to answer to the charge and enter his plea.
As I needed both support and exposure for this prosecution, I compiled and uploaded a video to my Youtube channel on everything that had happened so far. This video went viral and clocked over 600,000 views.
I had so many emails of support it took me over a month to send out personal replies to everyone. A few naysayers insisted that I was prejudicing the case by reporting on it, despite the fact the initial hearing was in public and I was fully entitled to report on the matter, including identifying the defendant. Local news agencies file detailed reports of court proceedings, including pre-trial hearings, every day without criticism they are prejudicing the defendant’s right to a fair trial. I had also taken the precaution of asking the judge at the pre-summons hearing if any reporting restrictions applied. Besides which, I gave no greater detail of the incident in my video then what I read out in court (or at least what I had been allowed to read out). The primary focus of the video was how a civilian police investigator had been allowed to conduct an entirely exculpatory investigation while the CPS conveniently looked the other way.
A few weeks after the video had been uploaded, the CPS had a sudden change of heart. They wrote to the victim telling him that they had reassessed the case and decided there was a case to answer. They stated, in somewhat ambiguous terms, that they would be prosecuting PC Knights after all. They invited the victim to discontinue the private prosecution. On the face of it this appeared to be good news. I have no problem with the CPS doing the job they are trained and paid to do, if they intend to do it earnestly and competently. However the victim was not the prosecutor, I was. So I wrote to the CPS and asked them to clarify their intention. They responded but failed to confirm whether or not they intended to take over the prosecution. Instead they asked if I intended to discontinue the case. I repeated my initial question. They have ignored all my communications since.
I find it unusual that the CPS would ask me if I wished them to take over the case, considering they have the power by proxy of the DPP to take over any private prosecution they choose. They aren’t required by law to state their intentions, give advance notice, or offer reassurances to the private prosecutor that they will secure a conviction. But because I have received no clear communication from them, I will continue with the prosecution as intended. And by that I mean prosecuting the officer to the full extent of the law. Because as it turned out, when the court finally issued a copy of the summons to me, only the charge of common assault stood. The judge had refused to issue a summons under s26 for ‘corrupt or other improper exercise of police powers and privileges’. The judge had expressed his confusion during the initial hearing as to what constituted an offence under this provision, so it seemed to me his decision to remove it from the list of charges, was erroneous. So once again, the day before the plea hearing I sent a further application, inviting the judge to reconsider his decision. In my application I wrote:
“Prior to this hearing judge Taaffe refused to issue a summons for a charge under section 26 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. I believe the reasoning he gave was defective due to his misunderstanding of what makes up an offence under section 26. For some reason the judge seems to believe that the charge relates to the police’s failings regarding investigation. Section 26 is clear in its scope and should be properly interpreted. PC Mark Knights behaviour, abuse of police resources and assistance of his colleagues during the assault can be considered exercising the powers and privileges of a constable improperly. I would invite the judge to reconsider his decision and reissue the summons adding s26 to the existing charge of common assault.
If s26 is not added to the summons then please consider this email as a letter before claim under the civil procedure rules for initiating judicial review proceedings which will be sent to the High Court in Leeds. This gives Derby Magistrates’ Court 14 days in which to respond.”
As I have already stated, an isolated charge of common assault would be appropriate if this were an ordinary member of the public who had headbutted the victim. But the police must be held to a higher standard, and the charges should reflect this. Police officers rarely commit these types of violent assaults against the public when they are alone. They do it when other officers are present – confident that the victim will be unable to retaliate or evade further assault – certain that their colleagues will instinctively come to their assistance. And while the victim is being restrained that officer is then free to use police issued handcuffs to prevent him from any hope of self defence, and falsely imprison them in a police owned vehicle to satisfy the officer’s personal vindictive motives. If that is not the improper use of police power’s and privileges, then what is?
So I maintain that a prosecution under section 26 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 is entirely proportionate and appropriate under the circumstances. judge Taaffe however, saw it differently. In his response he stated:
“I have not changed my view. I gave leave for a summons to be issued having heard from the complainant that evidence of an unlawful assault was in existence. I declined to issue re misconduct in a public office. There is no misunderstanding. I heard no evidence of that offence, the specific offence of assault will stand or fall on the evidence in court in due course. The applicant gave no evidence of misconduct other than asserting that the officer’s wife worked for the Derbyshire constabulary in discipline. I queried whether he was stating she had interfered and he said there was no evidence of that. His latest e mail seems to hint at a conspiracy and mentions other officers. I have no knowledge of this and in my judgement the only offence for which evidence exists is the common assault and the fact that P.C Knights may be found to have assaulted the complainant is a specific criminal offence and should be heard as such.”
I fail to understand how pointing out obvious facts – that PC Knights relied upon the assistance of his colleagues, handcuffs and a police van to make his unlawful arrest – amounted to ‘hinting at a conspiracy’. I also found it odd that the judge recalled asking if Knight’s wife had interfered with the investigation. Myself and 4 witnesses in the public gallery have no recollection of such a question being asked. It’s a shame he didn’t elaborate as to who he asked that question and what the response was. Further to this, the reason he ‘heard no evidence of that offence’ is because he repeatedly refused to hear it.
Hopefully the Administrative Court can throw some light on the matter, because that’s where the case is now headed. I’ve made an application for Judicial Review to the High Court in Leeds. Even though I could face a prohibitively expensive costs order if I fail, I think it is important to do so, not just for this prosecution, but to prevent these types of procedural improprieties from occurring in future. If I intend to make a habit of privately prosecuting criminally minded police officers that the police service and the CPS refuse to hold to account, then it is important that I am not constantly waylaid by the courts improvising procedure rules at their own convenience.
Not only will all of this ensure that Knights is properly tried, it will hopefully make it easier for anyone else who opts to traverse down the rocky road of private prosecution.
If you are interested in contributing to the private prosecution fund I have set up then I would be grateful for any donations you are willing to make. This fund exists to help me pursue not just this case, but to pursue other potential criminal cases against police officers who the police service, the IOPC and the CPS refuse to take action against.
A massive thank you to everyone who has contributed so far.