Police procedures held to account after £3,000 in cash seized during raid 'goes missing'
The police revamped its system of handling seized cash after officers were accused of stealing, or mislaying, thousands of pounds following a house search.
The allegation of "missing" money was made by a man whose property was searched under warrant by police officers who were looking for stolen goods.
He claimed that a total of more than £28,000 in cash was removed from the house by the police. Yet following an investigation, which resulted in no proceedings being taken against the owner, he said that the sum handed back was more than £3,000 short.
The man made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman's Office.
The police's mishandling of the way the money was catalogued was deemed to have jeopardised subsequent court proceedings, with the Police Ombudsman recommending an officer be disciplined for their role in the case.
The PSNI yesterday declined to comment on what disciplinary action, if any, was taken as a result.
The Ombudsman established through interviews with the officers and an analysis of the documentation that large sums of cash were found in different parts of the house. This money was immediately bagged on-site using tamper-proof evidence bags.
These were marked individually, listing where they were found, and dealt with in line with PSNI instructions and good practice, the investigation found.
Later that day the bags were handed over to another police officer for counting. The actions of this officer became the focus of the Ombudsman's investigation.
"Under questioning, he admitted that the day after he was handed the money he opened all of the sealed exhibit bags at the same time and counted their contents, but rather than counting the contents of each bag separately, he counted all the money as one," a Police Ombudsman report read.
"Crucially, this meant it was impossible to show, subsequently, how much money was seized from each part of the house. He vehemently denied, however, that the total amount seized came to the figure alleged by the complainant.
"It was established during the Ombudsman's investigation that, at the time of the incident, no internal guidance was available to officers on how to count money seized in such circumstances.
"However, the Ombudsman considered that a commonsense approach should have been adopted when dealing with the money."
The watchdog said it should have been clear that counting the contents of separate packages of money all together defeated the purpose of them being bagged individually.
"The officer's mishandling of the money contributed to the confusion over the total amount of money seized," his findings read. "It also weakened the prosecution case against the owner of the property, as the police were unable to counter the man's assertions about how much money was in each location.
"Additionally, the Ombudsman considered that the officer's actions exposed him and other police officers to allegations of theft."
The Ombudsman recommended that the PSNI should establish new written guidance for the way seized money is handled.
This resulted in a new 'cash seizure' flow chart which is now in operation across the PSNI.
Policing Board member David McIlveen told the Belfast Telegraph: "The handling of evidence should be done in a professional way. Regardless of what is behind a police search or investigation there has to be due care given to what you're doing."
"If money has been seized we have to ensure that is handled properly."