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Line of Duty – Through The Eyes of A Criminal Defence Lawyer

After the pandemic caused filming to be suspended last year, millions of fans eagerly awaited series 6 of the BBC police drama, Line of Duty, to plug their Sunday evenings in lockdown. To date, we’ve seen Superintendent Ted Hastings and his Anti-Corruption Unit-12 (AC-12) reveal three senior ‘bent coppers’, all with links to organised crime gangs (OCGs). We’re on edge of our seats to see if they will uncover the fourth corrupt officer, the mysterious ‘H’.

Whilst AC-12 is a fictional anti-corruption department (police corruption in the UK is investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct), friends often ask me how accurate the drama is to real life police work. As criminal defence lawyers, we have daily interactions with the police and it is our job to ensure our clients’ rights are not fettered.

A prime example of this is when DCI Joanne Davidson interrogates Terry Boyle, a vulnerable adult with Downs Syndrome, who’s been arrested on suspicion of murdering journalist Gail Vella. Having often represented young and vulnerable clients at the police station I am intrigued to see whether the BBC have accurately portrayed the interview process of a vulnerable suspect. Whilst it is clear to some viewers that Boyle is the victim of ‘cuckooing’ – a criminal term for when drug dealers befriend a vulnerable person, take over their home and use it as a drug den – DCI Davidson is convinced he is responsible for Vella’s death.

Firstly, who is the person sat behind Boyle in the corner of the interview room? This is his appropriate adult. Under the Police Crime and Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), anyone under the age of 18 or who is considered to be mentally vulnerable must have an appropriate adult present during their police interview. Their role is to safeguard the interviewee’s rights, interests and welfare. So tick, well done BBC.

Then, in episode 3, Boyle is again interrogated by DCI Fleming and DCI Davidson. Viewers watch him become increasingly distressed, but it’s also clear he is on the brink of divulging vital information about who is responsible for Vella’s death, possibly even naming the perpetrator. DCI Davidson suddenly terminates the interview, citing she is concerned that if the case went to court, any defence team would claim they oppressed and intimidated a vulnerable witness into incriminating himself.

Under section 76(2) of PACE, the defence team at court would be able to apply to exclude any confession made by Boyle in his police interview if it appeared that it was obtained by oppression or it can be shown that the police said or did something which might have caused Boyle to make a confession for reasons other than the fact that he had actually committed the offence. Oppression is defined as including torture, inhuman or degrading treating and the use or threat of violence. Things said or done by the police includes questioning a suspect in an inappropriate way or questioning a suspect when they’re not in a fit state to be interviewed.

So, was Boyle about to make a confession to Vella’s murder? A confession is legally defined as any statement “wholly or partly adverse to the person who made it, whether made to a person in authority or not and whether made in words or otherwise” (s82(1) of PACE). Boyle says “not me” and “the other man, he did it”. So was Boyle about to divulge something self-incriminating or was he about to reveal the identity of the actual murderer? It is a fundamental role of defence solicitors to protect vulnerable people in these situations but would a court have found DCI Davidson and DCI Fleming’s line of questioning as oppressive or otherwise? Or, as suspected by DCI Fleming, was the termination of Boyle’s interview another attempt by DCI Davidson to stall the investigation. And if so, then why?

What does she have to hide? The drama continues…