A lawyer representing people taking legal action against a forensic testing company after inaccurate results led to them being wrongly convicted says ‘wide-scale injustice’ could be uncovered as thousands more tests are reviewed.
Civil liberties specialists Hudgell Solicitors are advising a number of people who have had their convictions overturned as a result of samples being retested after coming back from Manchester-based Randox Testing Services with positive readings.
Just last week it was revealed that chef Billal Hartford, 21, of North Yorkshire, was wrongly banned from driving for a year, causing him to lose his job, when his test results suggested he’d been guilty of drug-driving.
He subsequently requested that his sample be retested after a major investigation into around 10,000 tests conducted at RTS was announced in February, following the arrest of two former employees on suspicion of the ‘manipulation’ of samples.
Now, Mr Petherbridge says another man, of West Yorkshire, is also taking action after having his conviction overturned following a retest.
He says the conviction – also for drug driving – has damaged his reputation with his employers, caused embarrassment for both he and his family and impacted significantly on his day to day life over the past year.
RTS was used by police forces across the UK, but following the arrest of two former employees in February, and allegations of samples being ‘manipulated’, tests – and resulting convictions – from more than 40 forces are now being reviewed.
‘Conviction damaged my reputation and embarrassed me and my family’
“It has had a massive impact on my life, and most of all it has damaged my reputation and been an embarrassment to myself and my family,” said the man, of Leeds, who asked not to be named.
“It really didn’t go down well with my employers. They thankfully were very good about it and allowed me to keep my job, but I had to go in and see my manager and say that I’d been convicted at court. That was difficult and it meant I couldn’t drive, which I had to do at work on occasion.
“It was a very difficult time for me, and all the time I couldn’t understand how I had tested positive, but yet you don’t feel you can argue with scientific results.
“It was all very quick from the police stopping me to the results coming back and me being in court. I was advised to plead guilty because of the evidence against me – evidence which was completely wrong. Still, I couldn’t say to my employer ‘I’m innocent, but I pleaded guilty’. It was all very strange.”
The man had been stopped by West Yorkshire Police last December, having spent the evening with friends. He says his passenger had smoked some cannabis that night, and when officers stopped his car, they said they could smell the drug.
“As they said they could smell cannabis and because I was driving, they wanted to test me. I knew I would not be positive but the officer said he wasn’t happy with the result and that I’d have to come to the station.
“I couldn’t believe it, but I’d never been in trouble with the police at all before so I just thought it best not to argue and do what I was told.
“When I got home, just before midnight, I had to explain to my parents that I’d been arrested at the station to give a sample for drug driving. My family were very supportive, but disappointed in me. I felt awful and stressed that I was sure I had done no wrong.”
Result wrongly suggested man had been almost three times over drug-drive limit
The man received a letter in January saying his sample had shown him to almost three times over the drug-drive limit. He was advised, in the face of scientific evidence, to plead guilty when appearing at Bradford Magistrates Court in February, receiving a 12-month driving ban and a £400 fine.
“I couldn’t really believe what had happened to me,” he said.
“At one point the magistrate was talking about banning me for three years. Losing a driving licence has a massive impact on life. My dad has had to drive me around and to and from work.
“I was also playing for an amateur football team at a decent level at the time but I had to quit that because I couldn’t travel to games. I also sold my car because I didn’t want it sat there for a year not being used.”
He finally had his conviction overturned when contacted by the court in November to say his sample had been retested and found to be negative. His licence was reinstated last week.
He says he now feels for others in the same situation as he found himself, and added: “It has damaged my trust and faith in the legal system. This was my first experience of it and I don’t have confidence in the police now.
“I just can’t understand it all. If the results of tests are found to have been deliberately manipulated, serious questions have to be asked why. What is the motivation for people to do that?
“Even if it is found not to have been a deliberate act, still how on earth can it happen? This is peoples’ lives we are talking about.”
‘Innocent people are wrongly having reputations and lives damaged’
Mr Petherbridge says Hudgell Solicitors is supporting a number of people who have had their convictions overturned after samples were tested at RTS.
He said: “This is quickly developing into a major scandal. We are now taking on new cases and there could be wide-scale injustice discovered as this investigation goes on.
“It has been reported that up to a quarter of the affected cases across 42 police forces were used in hundreds of cases relating to crimes such as rape, murder and sudden death. It is worrying to thing convictions in such cases could be unsafe.
“The simple facts are that innocent people are having their reputations damaged by false convictions. It is damaging to their lives at home, and at work, and socially.
“It is unacceptable that, for whatever the reason, people are being wrongly convicted. Randox Testing Services were responsible for ensuring the tests – on which livelihoods and liberties were at stake – were accurate.
“For results to be come back and lead to people being wrongly convicted is a disgrace.
“Clients have said to us that didn’t feel they could challenge the results of a forensic test. Our advice to people is that if you believe you were innocent, ask if your test could be one of the thousands under question and find out.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said 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.