Mobile phone seizures: Rape complainants treated as terrorists

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06/10/2019 by socialistfight

By Ian Donovan

There has recently been an alarming combination of statistics regarding rape accusations, charges and convictions. According to statistics released by the Rape Monitoring Group (RMG) on 25 August, the number of reported rapes in England and Wales rose quite considerably over the last year, from 41,186 to 54,045, a 31% rise in reports. At the same time the conviction rape fell from 6.8% to 4.2%, which in relative terms is a 38% fall from the previous year. The number of alleged rapes that were not reported as crimes rose from 8,624 to 11,913, again a rise of 38%. The number of cases that resulted in charges fell from 6,606 to 6,012, a drop of 8%. But the number of convictions fell much more, from 1,350 to 1,062, a 21% fall.

Quite a shocking combination of statistics! If you discount the farcical idea that over 95% of rape accusations made by women are false – there are people around who genuinely believe such things – then obviously a major injustice is happening here.

Getting dramatically worse

And things are getting dramatically worse, despite the existence of trained female rape specialists in the police forces and decades of supposed improvements in court procedures. A huge number of women are suffering trauma, and have no apparent recourse as the situation is getting worse.

One very aggravating factor in this is the increasing demands from the police for the seizure of complainants’ mobile phones upon reporting a suspected rape. The various police forces have come to do this as a result of a few well-publicised cases where cases collapsed due to non-disclosure of some significant evidence to the defence.

However, it is blindly obvious that the enforced handing over of an alleged victim’s phone, the content of which will be given to the defence, which has increasingly become the norm, is grossly intrusive and traumatising to any genuine victim.

It is a complete invasion of privacy and allows someone who, irrespective of the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty, may well be in fact guilty of rape, total access to the personal and private material of their alleged victim. Everyone has private and confidential aspects of their personal life and a right for them to remain private, in the absence of reasonable suspicions that they themselves have committed a crime; and certainly not to have every confidential aspect of their personal life, unrelated to the case, available to a likely rapist and their often unscrupulous lawyers, to use against the alleged victim as they will.

Of course this raises the question of the meaning of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, both at an individual level, and at an aggregate level. These are two aspects that have to be balanced: it is perfectly possible that in an individual case a complainant may be lying, and that that the ‘victim’ may in that particular case be withholding evidence that would result in the accused being exonerated. But what is equally prejudicial as assuming guilt of an alleged rapist in an individual case, is assuming that, in their majority, women who report rape are lying and should be assumed to be so.

The implicit assumption behind the police position seems to be the latter. This is because it is obvious that the contents of a person’s phone are as private as their home. In order to search someone’s home (if they are not invited to do so) the police have to get a warrant, authorised by a judicial authority. This should be the case for mobile phones as well; their contents are as sensitive and private as the contents of their home, and should be subject to the same safeguards.

It is not normal to insist that the victim of a crime have their home subjected to a search as if they are the perpetrator of a crime, unless there is some reasonable suspicion that they have actually committed a crime themselves, and a judicial authority can be shown that evidence and agree.

‘Reasonable suspicion’  under anti-terrorism laws

In fact the only circumstances currently where searches can as a matter of course take place without a warrant granted because of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is under anti-terrorism laws. And even those do not include people’s homes. So arguably, this coercive searching of alleged rape victims involves treating them as terror suspects, or even worse! No wonder so many end up not pressing charges!

This demand is a basic reform that should safeguard the privacy of victims. It goes some way to rebalance something which statistically cannot possibly be true: that most women who report rapes are liars, to be assumed to be guilty of such, and that therefore it is correct as a default position to hand their most intimate details over to the accused who is assumed to be innocent. That is a malicious assumption; and an example of gross misogyny in the criminal justice system.

This is not fool proof however, and there are likely to be a very few cases where a guilty lying accuser can create a miscarriage of justice at the expense of an innocent accused person. The problem is that the opposite system is inevitably going to produce many more miscarriages of justice.

Rape is not shoplifting. Being raped can severely damage a person’s life and cause incalculable harm. So can a false accusation of rape. But the nature of things in a society like ours where women are still treated as less than equal is that currently the number of the former can only massively exceed the latter. Both in the interests of fighting anti-women bias in the justice system, and the minimisation of harm, this is the only just policy regarding mobile phones.

Indeed it will benefit everyone who comes into contact with the police if their phone is treated like their home, and subject to the same legal safeguards. To a degree there is some reality to that already, as the police are only able to search computers, data and the like from a home with a warrant. This must be extended to phones all the time, in and out of the home, as phones are by their very nature portable.

This is a basic reform which the labour movement must fight for in the here and now, while understanding that the real liberation of women from the danger of rape can only take place in a socialist society where people’s personal lives and sexualities are not mangled and warped by the social irrationalities of capitalism. ▲

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