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Why ‘Protect’ a Suspect’s Identity?

We often get asked the question, why do we blur the suspects faces on our Facebook news feed?  The public, feeling frustrated with a crime often want to name and shame the suspects. Our director and legal expert, Mr Dave Campbell explains:

“Making an arrest is only the first step, we need to do what we can to try and secure a conviction as well. We need to consider if publishing suspects face on Social Media is helping or hindering a successful prosecution.

The reasons are threefold. Firstly it may well be a crime to do so. There are certain rules and procedures that need to be adhered to when handling situations regarding perpetrators, their identity, the victim and the crime.

“According to Section 69 of the South African Police Services Act, “No person may without the written consent of the National Provincial Commissioner, publish a photograph or sketch of a person who is suspected of having committed an offence and who is in custody…”. It goes on to state that “any person who publishes such a photograph shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months”.

 The Criminal Procedure Act, Section 154 (2)(b) stipulates that: – “No person shall at any stage before the appearance of an accused in a court upon any charge referred to in section 153 (3) or at any stage after such appearance but before the accused has pleaded to the charge, publish in any manner whatever any information relating to the charge in question”.

Section 153(3) charges relate to sexual offences and intimidation.

Secondly, it can interfere with the investigation and successful prosecution.

Where the evidence/information about a crime has been released on social media it could potentially taint the evidence.  For example, if a witness needs to identify an accused in an identity parade.  It could be argued by the defence that the witness has been tainted by seeing the accused face in the media and the accused is only pointed out due to his face appearing on social media and not from recognising him from the scene and that the court should not place weight on the identification.

It is also worth remembering that social media is accessible to the public and is viewed by EVERYONE.  This includes the suspects themselves.  We are aware that suspects do regularly view the social media feeds of security companies, neighbourhood watches, CPF’s, etc for information.  It can be a source of frustration when the community, be it with a good intention, misguidedly publicises information about crimes, including photographs and videos of vehicles used.  As soon as suspects become aware that the vehicle they are using is known, they immediately change it, making it more difficult to track and arrest them. It also tips them off that their identity may be known, allowing them the opportunity to flee before an arrest is made.

Thirdly, it could be unfair on the suspect. (Not necessary a popular argument I know.) But there are occasions where the suspect may not be guilty.  For example, where a member of the public points out a suspect to us and advises they had committed an offence days earlier, which was not witnessed by us, and the suspect  claims it’s a case of mistaken identity.”

Baring all of this in mind then, for best results in getting criminals off the streets, its better to hold off on revealing those suspect details. Yes, a conviction in the court of public opinion is one thing… but its far better for all of us to get that conviction in a real court instead.

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