Forensic Experts Suspect Mishandling Of Digital Evidence


Police officers are trampling over vital forensic evidence, are under-trained, and often do not know what they are looking for, MPs investigating digital disclosure problems have been told. Lack of resources and expertise leading to court cases collapsing.

Giving evidence to a justice select committee inquiry into failures to hand over material that has led to multiple court cases collapsing, leading digital forensic experts warned of funding shortfalls and inadequate skills.

“One of the problems is the sheer amount of digital evidence the police have to look at,” said Dr. Jan Collie, of Discovery Forensics, who specializes in defense work. “You have to consider the cloud for digital storage, too. There’s evidence everywhere. With cuts in funding, officers don’t have the time to do all that.

Mishandling The Evidence

Police forces do not have sufficient resources; she added: “When they have the people, they haven’t got the money to send them on courses.” Officers do not always understand the context of where digital information is found whether it has been inadvertently hoovered up through a browser or purposefully searched for, Collie said.

“A lot of police stations have mobile phone extraction kiosks where they put a mobile phone in and press a couple of buttons, but it’s not enough analysis. A police officer who has been trained for about a day can use the equipment," said Collie.

"He can click it in and handle the buttons, but often they spoil the evidence by mishandling. It’s like they have trodden on the evidence. Interpretation of data is being carried out by ordinary officers they are not trained to do it," said Collie.

Many recent cases that collapsed involved rape charges where crucial text message exchanges were either missed by investigators or only released belatedly. Prof Peter Sommer, an expert witness in digital forensics cases, told MPs: “These kiosks are designed for preliminary inquiry, to see if it is worth pursuing. They don’t produce reliable evidence.

Dr. Gillian Tully, who is the official forensic science regulator, told the committee: “Police digital forensic units are quite good at extracting information and making copies. They then pass copies to the general police, and investigators don’t necessarily have the tools to search the information or make good use of it.” 

Sommer suggested one way to solve disclosure failures would be for all the digital material to be handed over to the defense. But Rebecca Hitchen of charity Rape Crisis told the committee that disclosure of highly personal evidence often leads to victims refusing to testify, particularly in sexual assault cases.

“When a complainant learns of the level of intrusion into their lives, they often decide it’s not in their best interest to continue,” she said. “There are incredibly high levels of withdrawal from police investigations around the issue of personal history, for example, if someone had an abortion at an earlier stage and the police can’t give an assurance that it won’t be revealed. The sensation of sex crime survivors is often that they are being put on trial.”