This week we meet a police officer who works to identify and recover the proceeds of crime.
I used to work as a uniformed police officer, but a few years ago I joined a multi-agency unit that investigates criminals’ assets and attempts to confiscate the proceeds of crime.
There are five such Regional Asset Recovery Teams around the country, and another four are being established; ours is staffed by local police along with HM Revenue & Customs and Crown Prosecution Service, plus attachments from other agencies.
The work we’re doing is at the forefront of policing. Until 2002, we used bits of legislation to confiscate the proceeds of crime, but now almost all our work is done under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), which has provided a far more effective way of confiscating assets.
Where criminal investigations are being carried out into more serious offences, whether it be by trading standards officers, uniformed police or other units, we can assist in researching people’s financial background, and running a parallel investigation with the aim of stripping them of their assets and recovering whatever benefits they’ve gained through their crimes.
Under POCA, where a defendent is convicted of a specified offence and we can demonstrate to a court that they have a ‘criminal lifestyle’, the court is required to invoke certain assumptions; and we only need to reach the civil standard of proof to demonstrate this, so it’s on ‘balance of probability’ rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Those assumptions mean that anything that the person has obtained, held or transferred in the last six years is defined as the ‘benefit’ of crime, and can be seized.
Even if we don’t know exactly where the assets came from, if it’s been deemed a ‘lifestyle offence’, then they’re liable to be seized unless they can prove that they got the money legitimately.
Separately, we can find assets – boats, houses, funds, anything with a monetary value – and ask the courts to issue a confiscation order to their value. Then convicted criminals are required to repay that amount within a specified time, and if they fail then they’ll serve an extra term of imprisonment.
Even after that extra term, if they haven’t paid up then they’ll still owe the money; so if we stop them driving a Porsche five years down the line, then we can seek a variation to the order and seize it.
This is draconian legislation – it’s designed to be – but a lot of people have been going to prison over the years laughing at a two-year stretch, then coming out to enjoy their assets. Now the aim is that they come out of prison with nothing.
When the assets are held overseas, we liaise with police services around the world. Sometimes we exchange intelligence; sometimes, we put in an ‘international letter of request’ to secure data. Often, we ask that officers like myself be allowed to travel abroad and assist the local police.
Foreign police aren’t under any obligation to answer questions, but there’s a ‘can-do’ attitude among police that assists in getting the job done. A lot of it comes down to the skills of the officers and lawyers who are drafting the requests for information and the interpersonal relationships within the two bodies that are corresponding.
Coming from a uniform background, I find that in this role I’m able to get on with my job rather than worrying about form-filling. Although we do of course have to deal with a large amount of paperwork, we have the benefit of officers, computers and secretaries.
As a uniform officer, there was a frustration that the paperwork was a distraction from doing the job; but in this work, the paperwork is the job and there’s less need to report back on every bit of work I do.
Recently, divisions of local police forces have started to do more of this kind of work themselves. And because they’re doing their own financial investigations, we’re able to concentrate on the bigger players; we’ve started to look at more serious crimes, being more selective so that we can achieve the best possible results.
It’s still a wide range of offences, though: we’ll do anything from drug dealers to human traffickers to paedophile rings to mortgage frauds – though we don’t have many of the latter at the moment! And as well as our asset recovery role, we also use financial investigations to, for example, track down missing people and wanted offenders.
This legislation is still quite new, so people aren’t used to it; after all, by moving the burden of proof from police to criminals, POCA puts everything on its head. Once they’ve understood the legislation, though, everybody’s behind the idea of taking the money away from these people.
Politicians and the public alike both support the principle behind what we’re doing. So asset recovery is becoming more of a priority – and when this legislation is used properly, it works extremely well.