What are harassment warnings?
Harassment warnings – or PINs (Police Information Notices) are formal written notices given to people who have been accused of causing alarm and distress to another person. They contain an account of the incident as alleged by the complainant and a warning that any further incidents could result in arrest and prosecution.
Each harassment warning should contain details of alleged conduct. The police issue PIN’s – to serve as a ‘reminder’ to stay away from the complainant. The notice will often conclude with assurances that the document is not an indication of guilt. However, these warnings become a permanent record on the Police National Computer (PNC) and may in certain circumstances be disclosed to third parties, for example if you require an enhanced CRB check.
Example of harassment warning letter
The House of Commons produced a briefing paper on harassment warnings in October 2016.
How harassment warnings become a verdict without trial
Whenever a harassment warning is issued an entry is made on the Police National Database (PND) and a corresponding warning flag is placed against the recipient’s name and address on the Police National Computer (PNC). The PND entry contains a full list of the allegations as they appear on the warning. No rebuttal, explanation or denial of the allegations are entered even if they are given.
Although they do not show on basic criminal record checks, they are disclosed on enhanced criminal record checks. Which means if you are applying for a visa, or working in a high security environment then this may pose difficulties for you. Harassment warnings can remain on police files for 7 years, often longer if they go unchallenged.
How effective are harassment warnings?
Harassment warnings require an allegation, with very little investigation. Those receiving them may make counter allegations. This may lead to the police serving warnings on those who have accused others. However, in a disagreement between two parties, the police may favour whoever makes the first complaint.
What to do if you are given a harassment warning
You should take immediate legal advice. Most harassment warnings are served by hand. The police will tell you that an allegation of harassment has been made about you by a third party. Irrespective of anything you say in your defence, you will be handed the notice and asked to sign it. However, you are under no obligation to acknowledge the allegations. The signing of it may be used as evidence against you should a charge of harassment be brought at a later date.
It’s up to you if you choose to take a copy of the harassment notice unsigned. Accepting it without signature is no proof of admission. Furthermore, the police cannot insist you sign for it as a condition of it being handed over. If they insist, it may render the document useless as future evidence as well as give you a valid complaint against the officer concerned.
Refusing to accept the document will not prevent the police from entering the allegation onto police computers. It is possible that this will have been done before the notice is even delivered.
The issuing of a notice does not give you a formal opportunity to make a record of your response. Regardless of how upset you may feel on receipt of this notice, we would advise against saying anything to the police at this stage, without the benefit of legal advice. If a policeman is interviewing you and you wish to make criminal allegations of your own, then the officer is obliged to record it. Sometimes harassment warnings are given after a formal police interview, when no further action is decided.
How to challenge a harassment warning
The first step to challenging a harassment warning is to lodge an official complaint. You can do this via e-mail or by post. It may be helpful to take legal advice, in order to properly refute each of the allegations in the PIN. If the allegations are a complete fabrication they will need to be challenged individually. If you have witnesses who can support your account, then their statements need to be included. To ensure that these statements are concise, they are better taken by a legal professional. Any video or audio evidence ought to be included.
At the end of the complaint you should insist that the allegations be fully investigated or removed in their entirety from police computers. If the police fail to do so, then you could complain to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). If the IPCC fail to quash a Prevention from Harassment warning issued by the Police, then a Judicial Review of the decision can be sought in the Administrative Division of the High Court. However you must act promptly and in any event within 3 months of the decision being challenged.
- The Data Protection Act
The Data Protection Act (DPA) requires that intelligence retained upon police computers must be “necessary, adequate, accurate/up to date and not excessive”.
Under Section 10 of the Act you are entitled, in limited circumstances, to write to the police requesting that personal information likely to cause unwarranted substantial damage or substantial distress to be deleted. The Chief Constable of each individual force is registered as the Data Controller for such records and they have the authority to delete information. Should they refuse then you may appeal to the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office). Under section 42 of the DPA any person can request the ICO to make an assessment if they believe that they have been adversely affected by the handling of personal data by the police. The ICO may then issue a compliance order instructing the police to destroy the data.
Should you be unsuccessful on appeal to the ICO you can still pursue breaches of the Data Protection Act through the civil court. Under section 14 of the DPA an individual has the right to seek a court order for the rectification, blocking, erasure or destruction of inaccurate personal data.
Under section 13 of the DPA any individual that believes they have suffered damage or distress may be entitled to compensation from the police.
- Exceptional case procedure
Chief Police Officers have the power to delete any information held on either the PNC or local police computers. Deleting such information is known as ‘Exceptional Case Procedure.’ An individual can seek the removal of information from the PNC by applying under the Exceptional Case Procedure. Data deleted under this procedure usually involves that associated with unlawful arrest, or where an offence did not exist. However, the police will refuse to delete information simply because its disclosure might cause someone difficulties in finding employment.
- The Human Rights Act
Data that interferes with an individual’s right to respect for their private life maybe a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, If it can be justified by showing that the data serves the public interest in a sufficiently important way then a human rights claim may fail. However the burden of proving that the interference is justified rests entirely upon the police.
- Triggered Reviews
By far the quickest and most effective way of having unfounded allegations removed from police databases is to trigger a review. This can be done by making a subject access request for all data that the police currently retain against your name.
The collection and management of data on police databases is regulated by the Data Protection Act 1998. It is also subject to the Code of Practice issued by the Home Secretary under the Police Acts 1996 and 1997 and the Guidance on the Management of Police Information published by the National Policing Improvement Agency.
Paragraph 7.4 provides that all records which are accurate, up to date and necessary for policing purposes should be held for a minimum of six years to assist forces in identifying offending patterns over time. After that there should be a review in order to determine whether it is still necessary to keep the record for policing purposes.