A man has told how his wrongful conviction – caused by the inaccurate result of a forensic drug test at a company now the centre of a huge investigation into alleged manipulation of samples – cost him his job and his freedom.
Billal Hartford, 21, was devastated when told a swab sample taken by police officers who stopped him when driving had come back as positive.
Insistent of his innocence, he denied the drug-driving charge against him, but was found guilty at court as the seemingly overwhelming and indisputable forensic evidence completely contradicted his plea.
It was a conviction which came at a cost, causing him to lose his employment as a chef, as he could no longer travel to and from work. He also says the conviction effectively robbed him of his ‘freedom’, as he lives in a remote area.
When convicted in December of last year, Mr Hartford was facing 12 months off the road and had to rely on friends and family to help him get around.
His search for a new job also proved difficult, again due to the need to drive from his isolated home in the small hamlet of Skutterskelfe, near Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire.
However, having seen national news reports in February detailing allegations of manipulation of forensic results at Randox Testing Services (RTS) – a company used by police forces across the UK – Mr Hartford contacted police to ask if his sample had been sent to the centre.
It was found that it had, and when retested his sample was found to be clear, leading to his conviction being quashed and his licence returned.
Thousands of forensic samples having to be retested due to ‘manipulation’ concerns
Now, as it has been revealed that around 10,000 tests from more than 40 forces may have been affected, including in convictions relating to violent crime, sexual offences and unexplained deaths, Mr Hartford has urged more people to demand retests if they have been convicted, but know they are innocent.
“I think it’s shocking how something like this can happen to people,” said Mr Hartford.
“There is supposed to be an official legal system in place and I simply can’t believe how peoples’ lives can be ruined by being wrongly convicted of crimes. Forensic results are seen as being the undisputed evidence – but it is not the case now.
“I live in a rural area and losing my driving licence affected me massively. I had just started a new job working as a chef and I lost that job because I couldn’t drive and get to and from work when I needed to be there. Then couldn’t get a new job. The nearest shop from my house is nearly two miles away and I had to get lifts from family and friends. I spent a lot of money on taxis too.
“I was depressed because I was stuck not being able to do anything. It may not seem the most serious of convictions but your driving licence is your freedom and that was taken away from me. If I had been over the limit and had committed an offence, then I would have accepted it. But this was for nothing.
“Now we are told thousands of cases are having to be reviewed so there will be more people out there who have been convicted and don’t even know about this.
“Their situations and the impact on their lives could be much worse. I feel sorry for them, it’s not fair.”
Police stopped driver after reports of similar car driving erratically
Mr Hartford was stopped by three local police officers in August of last year and was asked to provide a sample.
“They said they’d stopped me because they’d had reports of a car similar to mine driving erratically, so that is fine, I have no issue with that,” he said.
“One of the officers said he thought he could smell cannabis – and I admit that I did have some cannabis in the car. I am an occasional user, like many. They took a saliva swab at the side of the road and the next thing I knew I was under arrest for possession, taken into custody and I was interviewed.
“After that, I was taken to a cell while waiting for a nurse to come from York, which took about two hours. I went into a room with the nurse and the arresting officer, and I was asked if I was fit and willing to provide a sample, which I did.
“She took blood from me and a sample was given to me and they said I could have it independently tested, but I didn’t feel there was a need to. I signed a document and was in the cell for another hour before they let me go.
“When I went to answer bail a month later, they said I was being charged. I went to court and was fined for the cannabis possession, but also found guilty of drug driving because of the test result, and that meant that I lost my licence. It all seemed so unfair.
“Had the sample come back as negative I would never have lost my licence. The forensic test was seen as gospel, and of course, being in possession simply meant that nobody believed me. I’d never drive having taken drugs though, just as I wouldn’t drink alcohol and drive.”
Civil action launched for wrongful conviction and breach of duty of care
Mr Hartford says he faced a battle to prove his innocence, calling first the CPS, then appealing to have his driving ban suspended pending the outcome, before a court hearing when his sample had been retested.
He said: “When I arrived at court that day, my solicitor told me my sample had been re-tested and that the result had been clear. There were zero traces of drugs in my system and the judge looked at me and apologised. He said ‘someone is to blame here’ for what happened to me. I was delighted to have my licence back.”
Now, with his conviction quashed and his licence returned, Mr Hartford has launched legal action against Randox Testing Services through human rights and civil liberties specialists Hudgell Solicitors
Solicitor, Simon Wilson said: “There can be no doubt that Mr Hartford has suffered significantly as a result of the test results wrongly coming back as positive.
“It cost him his driving licence, and had it not been for him becoming aware of the investigation into alleged manipulation of results, he would have remained unable to drive for a year.
“There was clear duty of care on Randox Testing Services, given the high importance of the role they were entrusted to take up on behalf of police forces, to ensure the sample was properly tested and the right result reached. This did not happen.
“We are currently being instructed by more clients in similar circumstances to this issue, again relating to tests carried out by this company, and the scale of potential harm and possible wrongful convictions this may have led to is deeply concerning.
“Mr Hartford was fortunate in that he saw the news reports and quickly acted to challenge his conviction. Had he not, he would still be without his licence now.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said the matter has led to around 50 cases being dropped so far which had been due to go to trial. Around 1,500 retests will have been completed by the end of the year, but it could take as long as three years to complete the full investigation.
Even then it may not be possible to retest all samples under question, as some may no longer be viable because of their quality or quantity.
Mr Hartford added: “I think someone should be going out of their way to tell people whose samples may have been tested there. I only heard about it in the news and I had to contact the police.
“I think everyone should be made aware. It’s not right. People shouldn’t have to fight and go out of their way like I have.
“I’m taking legal action because I want something back for them ruining six months of my life. I was stuck in the house for most of the time. It was awful and it really affected me.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. Some might face jail for doing nothing wrong and that is disgraceful.”