from the LIFE-HAS-CRASHED-[a]bort-[r]etry-[f]ail dept
What's a few typos between you and
a friend a few cops? Nothing, really. The lives they ruin will not be their own.
UK resident Nigel Lang lost more than two years of his life to a typo. He was never jailed, but the life he lived was bereft of freedom. Thanks to the addition of a single wrong digit, Lang's house was raided, his electronics seized, and his life's goals rerouted.
He was told that when police requested details about an IP address connected to the sharing of indecent images of children, one extra keystroke was made by mistake, sending police to entirely the wrong physical location.
That's all it took to turn Lang's life upside down. While police searched his electronics for nonexistent child porn, Lang lost his job counseling troubled teens and was cut off from his family.
Lang was bailed, but under strict and devastating conditions. Social services had visited his partner at home while he was being interviewed to conduct a “safeguarding assessment”, and it was decided he could not live at the family home, visit his son there, or have any unsupervised contact with his son anywhere.
It took more than a year before anyone would even entertain the idea that some error might have been made. At first, Lang, who is black, suspected this wrongful arrest might have been racially-motivated. But the IP address mistakenly entered by law enforcement was registered to his partner, who is white. He then tried to get to the bottom of why police had targeted him in the first place. If anyone wonders why so few complaints against law enforcement result in punishment, here's part of the answer: the complaint process is unofficially discouraged by officers and staff.
Lang said that before he was able to officially lodge the complaint, an officer called him, questioning his need to complain and asking him whether his arrest had even had any impact upon his life.
GOOD LORD. It's as if police officers have no idea what life's like for the people they police. And it's as though they think all their errors are harmless.
Lang's complaint, based on the faulty discrimination premise, was rejected. The rejection, however, pointed Lang towards the truth. The arrest order -- based on incorrect information -- had actually originated more than 100 miles away from Lang's home, with an entirely different law enforcement agency.
South Yorkshire police’s DI Sean McMahon, who investigated the complaint, wrote that in May 2011, officers had received information from their colleagues in Hertfordshire that they had identified an IP address that had shared more than 100 images of children via peer-to-peer software in April that year. Hertfordshire police had established that the IP address belonged to the account in the name of Lang’s partner.
The letter also pointed out very little investigatory work had been done by Hertfordshire. The police there had little more to go on than an IP address, but felt justified in swearing out a warrant. The raid was conducted by the South Yorkshire police, who at least helpfully suggested in the letter that the information used by Hertfordshire might have been incorrect.
But the point of the letter was to close the investigation of Lang's complaint. According to South Yorkshire Police, officers had acted in good faith based on information handed to them by another law enforcement agency. There was nothing more it could do for Lang and closed the complaint.
More than three years after his arrest, the Hertfordshire police finally admitted their error.
Hertfordshire police were initially resistant, refusing to speak to Lang’s solicitor before they could talk to Lang himself. Over the phone, he was finally told the circumstances behind his arrest: While requesting details about an IP address linked to indecent images of children from an internet service provider, police had added an extra digit – a single keystroke – by mistake. When the ISP came back with a physical address for the IP address provided, it led police to Lang’s front door. The internet account set up by Lang’s partner just happened to have the wrong IP address at the wrong time.
Lang also managed to obtain this admission of wrongdoing in writing, along with a $60,000 settlement. The bogus charges -- still on his record years later -- are finally being expunged. While $60,000 seems rather low for turning someone into a de facto pedophile based on erroneous information, Lang's settlement came with something you'll never find attached to one here in the United States: an apology and a statement of culpability.
Lang is still waiting for an apology from the agency that raided his house and placed him under arrest. Most likely, that apology will never come. Hertfordshire screwed up its data entry and local officers had no reason to question the information given to them.
But that's all it takes to derail -- if not completely ruin -- someone's life: an extra digit. Predicating arrests solely on IP addresses is only part of the problem. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies all over the world are building massive databases from anything they can lay their hands on. These databases freely intermingle personal data on innocent people with those charged with crimes. A little fat fingering can do a whole lot of damage. Clerical errors may cause law enforcement agencies a little embarrassment and/or a chunk of taxpayers' cash if a settlement is handed out. That's nothing compared to the damage done to citizens who find themselves on the receiving end.