Hundreds hanging on police bail

Months after arrest, suspects waiting to see if they will be charged

Hundreds of criminal suspects are left hanging on police bail for months waiting to discover if they will face charges or not.

At the moment, 259 people in the Cayman Islands are on this type of bail, where conditions are set by the police rather than by the courts, including 39 for more than six months.

One suspect in a theft and false accounting investigation has been on bail since June 2012, according to police data supplied to the Caymanian Compass in response to an open records request.

Eight people are still on police bail for suspected offenses, including theft, dangerous driving and possession and consumption of ganja, dating to 2012, according to a database of offenses up to the end of August this year.

The data shows investigators are using police bail for every conceivable type and category of offense, including attempted murder, rape of a child and burglary.

Police bail is a common tool used in the U.K., as in the Cayman Islands, to impose certain restrictions on suspects who are the focus of criminal investigations where there is not yet enough evidence to bring formal charges.

Conditions can be placed on suspects, including at least a requirement to return periodically to the police station, but also potentially including curfews, restrictions on movement and financial transactions, while investigations continue. There is no limit to the length of time a suspect can be placed on police bail or how many times it can be renewed.

In the U.K., the Law Society has called for a 28-day limit on this type of bail, arguing that suspects, many of whom never face charges, are left in a legal limbo as investigations drag on, potentially affecting their personal and professional lives.

In some cases in England, suspects who were ultimately never charged have reported losing jobs or relationships as a result of being on police bail in connection with offenses.

In many countries, including the U.S. and even Scotland, which has a degree of political independence from England and Wales, bail is decided exclusively by the courts and only after criminal charges have been brought by the police.

The onus is on investigators, before arresting a suspect, to gather enough evidence to bring charges. Only then can a judge or magistrate decide, based on evidence presented in court, to restrict the freedom of a suspect.

Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Anthony Ennis said the force did not support a “rigid time limit” on police bail, such as the six months proposed by advocates in the U.K.

He said there were various reasons why a suspect may need to be kept on police bail for a protracted period, including efforts to identify and locate witnesses or delays while evidence is sent overseas for forensic analysis.

He added, “We do, however, accept that a person is innocent until proven guilty and every effort is made to minimize disruptions to an accused person while on police bail.

“But we do not believe that a rigid time limit would enhance the need to have a robust investigative process to ensure the best evidence available to prosecute, or clear an offender.”

He said a better option would be for police to enhance internal processes to avoid undue delays, where possible.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, a forum for U.K. police chiefs, has made similar comments, describing police bail as an “essential tool in securing justice.”

Senior officers in the U.K. have suggested extended police bail is particularly important in complex fraud cases where investigations can take several years to complete. It is not clear why offenses like possession of drugs or DUI would take several months to investigate.

The data supplied to the Compass includes 15 people who have been on police bail for more than three months for possession and consumption of ganja offenses and 11 on bail for more than three months charged with DUI or similar offense.

Opinion in the U.K. on police bail is divided, with the Law Society, human rights groups and even some police chiefs calling for maximum time limits to be set.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, in a report earlier this year, revealed there were 57,000 people on police bail in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

More than 3,000 had been on bail for more than six months and one individual, arrested three-and-a-half years earlier, was still waiting to learn if he would face charges.

Several suspects, including a teaching assistant who was suspended from his job after being arrested following false allegations of sexual assault, told the BBC their personal and professional lives had suffered because of protracted and public investigations.

The issue was raised again last week when the human rights group Liberty called for a six-month limit on police bail in response to news that journalists caught up in the Metropolitan police’s sprawling bribery and computer hacking investigation had been kept under investigation for two years without charges.

James Welch, legal director of Liberty, told the Guardian newspaper: “Bail is a crucial police tool, but, with no time limit, people’s lives are being put on hold and ruined by onerous bail conditions with no end in sight. A simple six-month statutory backstop would end the uncertainty and anxiety of having possible prosecution hanging over you indefinitely – and encourage prompt, efficient police investigations.”

The Compass contacted several criminal defense lawyers in the Cayman Islands, but none would comment on the issue.