This post originally appeared on VICE UK. The situations discussed here are hypotheticals under British law. Picture the scene: You've been calling your guy once or twice a month for a year. The conversations rarely stretch much further than: "I'd like the usual—one please!" You'll lie and tell him you're going out in half an hour, so can he get 'round quick? He'll lie right back and say he'll be with you in 15 minutes. Three hours later, you're in the passenger seat of his diamond white Audi, asking about his Rosetta Stone Spanish course as you slip him $60 in exchange for a sweaty wrap of premium 4 percent cocaine.
Then, one day, the phone goes dead. Two weeks later, you hear he's been arrested, and after your initial concern about who you're going to call after six pints—it's fine, guys! Keith's got a number!—a sense of dread sets in about the history of calls and texts between the two of you. But are you right to be concerned? What chance do you have of the police calling you in for a chat about your recreational shit-drugs habit?
To find out, I called Russell Pyne, joint head of crime at Winchester's 2KBW Chambers law office, who's been prosecuting and defending drugs cases for 25 years.
VICE: What trouble would I be in if my drug dealer gets caught and my number is saved on his phone?
Russell Pyne: Likely none at all. If it's the phone of your dealer and you're simply a customer, it's unlikely the police are going to want to identify all the customers of the dealer and go after them. That might be different if there are other things on the phone, or if the dealer is making allegations against you.
Well, if they were in a police interview and panicked, they might say that you were their dealer. But that's quite unusual.
Would they look the text history between me and my dealer?
They may well do if they have good reason. As an additional part of the investigation, they will be wanting to find evidence that he or she is a dealer, because it's unlikely the person concerned is going to make a full and frank admission. The content of texts will often give an idea of whether it's commercial dealing, what drugs they are, over what period of time, and in what quantities. So they will be analyzed by an expert drugs officer.
How up to date are they with local drug colloquialism and slang?
Generally, the drugs experts will only deal with drugs cases, so they will likely know the local terminology. Saying that, two people could decide on words—a private code—between themselves.
At what point might the police become interested in me?
I guess the answer is: if the dealer is not simply a street-level dealer. If they've got someone they believe is a wholesaler who is selling to street dealers, then they're going to be interested because the people buying from him are themselves likely to be dealers. Especially if it's class A.
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So don't be a dealer, basically. Great! What about cannabis?
Well, it's going to vary from police force to police force, and equally on the priority of the force and the resources available. Class A is always going to get priority over B. If one is just talking cannabis, in my experience, you'd have to be talking a very substantial amount. I guess it could be different if you were talking about production. If there are texts that suggest knowledge of cannabis production, they may want to track that down.
So the long and short of if is that if you're an occasional, recreational user you're going to be OK?
Yes, I think you are. There is no criminal offense in asking to be supplied with drugs. There's nothing illegal about asking. Offering to supply is a criminal offense, supplying is a criminal offense, and possession is a criminal offense. But you have to be caught in possession, or supplying, or offering to supply. If I was an occasional cannabis user and I had a supplier who I sometimes texted saying, "Can you sell me an eighth please?" that is not going to be enough to see me charged with a criminal offense. The chances of the police then wanting to find out who I am, locate me, and arrest me because I might have an eighth on my person are negligible.
Could there ever be a case where they call you up to be a witness against a dealer?
That is possible. If there is a question about the ownership of the phone, then it's quite possible police could ring people on the contact list to see who answers and whether they could assist in identifying the owner. But I'd be surprised if they rang people up blind to be witnesses.
If you had a long history of text messages, would it be more likely that they'd contact you?
I think so. Here's an example: What if, on the phone of the dealer, there's a saved message in which they're threatening you for not paying them? That happens quite often, and the police could quite easily contact you if they thought there was a risk to your welfare or you were a victim of crime in the past.
Could they use your perceived guilt of possession to ensnare the dealer?
That would be improper. Obviously I know the police don't always follow procedure, but nobody should be subject to pressure in order to be a witness.
If the police were to contact you asking you to come to the station because they've found your number on a dealer's phone, what should you do?
There's a general expectation in the law that people will assist where they can. There are some—but not many—cases where they can prosecute for not cooperating, but on the whole, people are not under a legal requirement to help the police. Saying that, I wouldn't suggest that people should obstruct an investigation, of course!
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