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The Unsung Heroes of Justice: A Day in the Life of an Independent Drug Expert Witness
  • Nov 13, 2023
  • Latest Journal

By Adrian Parsons

In the complicated corridors of the UK's criminal justice system, there exists a group of professionals who play a pivotal role in ensuring that justice is served with precision and fairness. Meet the independent drug expert witness, the unsung heroes who work tirelessly behind the scenes to uphold the integrity of drug-related cases.

A Unique Role in the Justice System
As a practicing independent drug expert witness in the United Kingdom, having retired from the same role within policing, my daily routine is a challenging mixture of maths and law, and to a point, science, relentless in the pursuit of the truth. My primary mission is crystal clear: to assist the criminal justice system in cases revolving around drug offences, all whilst staying unwaveringly committed to the principle that every defendant deserves a fair trial.

The Investigative Journey Begins
To be completely honest, it's important to recognize that police evidence in drug dealer prosecutions is consistently strong. The investigator's case file usually contains highly detailed reports that clearly outline the circumstances of the defendant's arrest. Whether the defendant behaves predictably, consistently engaging in discernible patterns of drug-related activity, or he claims no connection to drugs whatsoever, the perspective and insight of a good, impartial police drug expert adds undeniable credibility to the already sound and convincing evidence. This approach is fair and fundamentally sound.
The independent expert’s journey starts with a comprehensive review of that prosecution drug expert report, and the accompanying case file evidence. This involves considering everything from the physical appearance and packaging of seized drugs to the scientific minutiae of laboratory findings, including the purity and strength, and the scientists description of the visual properties of the exhibit. Equally significant is the consideration of behavioural patterns linked to drug use and drug trafficking at all levels, shedding light on the sometimes intricate web of illicit activities.

Unravelling the Evidence
My role as an independent expert witness is not just about sifting through documents; it's about utilising my experience in a quest for clarity, as well as ensuring that the prosecution expert’s opinions are supported by the determined facts and not simply plucked out of thin air. I begin by dissecting the instructing counsel's written advice to me, often obtained through a forensic consultancy. This advice document most commonly lays out in detail, the specific points of evidence they want me to consider, and mention, as well as the areas I am to address in more detail, within my report.
My duty is to scrutinise every detail, leaving no stone unturned. This process also allows me to develop a profound understanding of the case in hand and, importantly, assists me in forming my own unbiased opinion about the defendant's involvement, or not, as the case may be.

It's sometimes a complex puzzle, but more often than not, it isn’t. Drug dealing is little different to running a shop, or a sales office, in that market principles often apply; you buy in bulk (wholesale) and you sell smaller amounts to the end user (retail) thus ensuring a profit. Sometimes though, there are intricacies and/or complexities that may mask or confuse that simplified approach, and it is my job to identify those gaps or inconsistencies that could be the difference between freedom or several years’ incarceration at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Challenging a prosecution expert
Nobody relishes being critiqued, challenged, or held accountable for their words or actions, especially when it appears to be coming from an opposing standpoint. This uncomfortable aspect of my role, that of challenging others, is an essential duty that I fulfil without hesitation.

With nearly three decades of experience as a police officer and over 15 years as a prosecution expert, I bring a unique perspective to the table. Furthermore, my ongoing role as a trainer for future police drug experts places me in a position to question and mentor those who will follow in my footsteps.

Throughout my career, I've stressed the paramount importance of impartiality in all the training courses I've conducted for my fellow police colleagues. I've emphasized that they must consistently strive to transcend the boundaries of impartiality. This concept was succinctly articulated in the case of R v Matadeen & Peebles (Unreported, January 25, 2001, Southwark Crown Court). The judgment made it abundantly clear that an expert must not only possess integrity but must also convey the "appearance" of impartiality and "independence," even when there is no doubt about their integrity.
In this particular case, the mere fact that the police expert worked in the same police station as the investigating officer eroded the perceived fairness, potentially infringing upon the defendants' rights under Article 6(1) of the ECHR.

In essence, my role involves holding a mirror to those in my field, ensuring that the principles of impartiality and fairness are upheld, even in the face of uncomfortable challenges. This commitment to upholding the highest standards of justice remains unwavering.

Police officers who have undergone my training, are well-versed in this particular case law, which often becomes a topic of discussion when some realize they cannot serve as expert witnesses for their colleagues or office peers.

In the 26 months of my tenure as an Independent Drug Expert, challenges to prosecution expert reports and opinions have been relatively scarce, accounting for only 16% of cases. This rarity can be attributed to the consistently robust nature of police evidence in drug-related prosecutions, as previously mentioned.

However, within this small pool of challenges, one recurring point of contention emerges—the valuation of drugs. Valuing an illicit commodity such as firearms or drugs is often acknowledged by law enforcement as "not an exact science." Consequently, it isn't determined by a single figure. Instead, best practices dictate the provision of a range of values. In the case of cannabis plants, as highlighted in R v Auton, Hindle, Vincent & Willis 2011, this approach is recommended.

When a range of values is presented, it typically encompasses two distinct and separate aspects: the "As Found" value, denoting the drug's value as it was discovered and seized by the police, whether in a larger wholesale quantity, or already packaged for street-level distribution (retail); and the Potential Value, signifying the worth of the drugs, especially in cases where a larger wholesale quantity is subdivided into smaller street-level deals, potentially with further adulteration (cutting) involved.

Calculating the range of values, whether "As Found" or "Potential," necessitates a meticulous examination that considers the specific evidence of the case. Without this essential context, the figure becomes arbitrary, likely to mislead, and potentially unjustifiably incorrect. Such an approach neither serves the court, nor benefits the defendant, but can have significant implications, particularly in Proceeds of Crime Applications.

It's imperative to recognise that being a Prosecution Expert or an Independent Expert doesn't entail aligning with the defence or the prosecution. Irrespective of the instructing party, the primary duty of both experts remains unwavering: to reveal any instances where a defendant appears to be fabricating information, or, if the investigating, or seizing officer has made errors. The approach used by the expert to fulfil this duty is left to their own expertise and courtroom skills to determine. Above all, it's crucial to emphasise that an expert's allegiance is to the court, not to their instructing party.

The Independent Drug Expert Alliance (IDEA)
In November 2022, I joined forces with three recently retired police colleagues and one of the UK's most respected forensic scientists to establish the Independent Drug Expert Alliance, commonly known as IDEA.

IDEA is a comprehensive, unbiased, and self-governing network of drug experts. Our alliance is built on a commitment to inclusivity, impartiality, and independence in the realm of drug expertise, as well as within the UK's criminal courts.

IDEA has garnered a substantial membership since its inception, including active-duty police colleagues who echo our concerns, and frustrations, regarding persistent issues with drug valuations. Many have received direct instruction to "never reference a price list in a report" as a way to navigate disclosure challenges. IDEA publishes its own drug price report that is freely available and in the public domain.
We advocate for transparency, rejecting unnecessary secrecy and information hoarding, especially regarding drug price reports, among experts on both sides of the criminal justice system. The driving principle behind IDEA is the urgent need for increased transparency.

Through collaborative sharing of credible and reliable information, we also aim to streamline the time and costs associated with drug-related criminal trials in the UK. Simultaneously, we seek to enhance the knowledge and proficiency of all individuals serving as drug expert witnesses.

Presenting the Verdict of Expertise
The culmination of this complex narrative occurs when I deliver my conclusions to the court through an exhaustive written report. In this role, I take on the mantle of a translator, converting sometimes often misunderstood drug trafficking slang, and supply methods, into easily understandable language. My aim is to ensure that everyone involved, from the presiding judge to the attentive jury, can readily grasp the essence of the case. However, my responsibilities extend beyond this point. I must remain ready to actively participate in discussions with counsel of both prosecution and defence, adeptly addressing their questions and assisting them, and the court, in any way I can.

A Rewarding Pursuit of Justice
To sum it up, the role of a drug expert witness is characterized by its rigorous and demanding requirements, necessitating a deep well of knowledge spanning both the intricacies of drugs markets as well as the legal dimensions of the court. However, it is an exceptionally fulfilling calling, serving as a pivotal element within the criminal courts. Our efforts are dedicated to ensuring that individuals facing drug-related charges receive fair treatment, whether guilty or not, and that the truth is brought to light within the confines of the courtroom.

Furthermore, it's crucial to note that our role is not to criticise the prosecution experts or police investigators, who carry out a challenging job under demanding circumstances. Instead, our purpose is to identify and address any inconsistencies or inaccuracies, often with the advantage of time and careful analysis.

Lessons Learned
An independent expert is precisely what the term implies: independent. During my tenure as a serving police officer and as a prosecution expert for 15 years, my role was inherently tied to the prosecution because of my affiliation with the police force. Upon reflection, it becomes evident that this arrangement may not be ideal. A police drug expert should be permitted to be engaged in any case, regardless of the instructing party. This approach embodies genuine independence and represents a progressive direction for our field.

Will it ever happen………. I hope so !