I managed to get Mr V acquitted because the law distinguishes between arrestable and non-arrestable offences. Or at least it did until earlier this yearby Alex McBride / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
The CCTV recorded the back-up unit’s progress. They were not exactly hurrying. Some officers jogged. Others went the wrong way. A stout officer, bringing up the rear, stumbled on the stairs. The camera cut to another group of cops, who had a black man pressed face-first against the wall of a pedestrian tunnel. There were too many of them to get a proper grip on him. They stood around as the man was pulled to the floor, handcuffed and taken away. You might be wondering what this man had done to merit such a response from so many officers. Mr V’s crime was to busk in the underground without a licence.
London Underground will give busking licences to people with criminal convictions only if the convictions are “spent.” The length of time it takes for a conviction to become spent depends on the sentence. If you’ve been sentenced to imprisonment for 30 months or more, your conviction is never spent. Mr V, who finds it hard to cope in stressful situations, has convictions for petty dishonesty and threatening behaviour but not for hitting anybody. He showed me the letter from London Underground telling him he doesn’t qualify because of his criminal record. Busking is a little job to make ends meet, and Mr V depends on it.
When Mr V was arrested early last year, unlicensed busking, as set out in the London Underground bylaws, was not an arrestable offence. A police officer couldn’t nick you for it. If you were to be prosecuted, a summons had to be sent to your home address. But common sense and police time dictate that buskers are usually just moved along. Mr V is used to being told to leave stations, and does so when asked. On this occasion, as the two officers approached him, he put away his guitar and tried to leave. But the police were not satisfied with this and asked for his name. Mr V has two surnames, his mother’s and his father’s. He gave them both. The police misheard and asked him to confirm his name, so he gave his father’s name, as this was on his birth certificate.
Under provisions set out in section 25 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the police can arrest you for a non-arrestable offence only if general arrest conditions apply. One such condition is a reasonable belief that you have given a false name. Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, before the police can arrest you they must also ask for, and presumably check, your address. In Mr V’s case, the officers failed to do so. Mr V felt wronged and humiliated. He refused to be handcuffed. But the police had other ideas. The male officer got one arm, the female officer the other and a struggle ensued. Mr V managed to shake off the female officer, who panicked and got out her CS spray—never a good idea in an enclosed tunnel, especially at close range where it can cause lasting damage. The first time she sprayed Mr V he shielded his face with the peak of his baseball cap. The second time a gust of wind came down the tunnel, blowing the spray into her face, temporarily blinding her. This left Mr V and the male officer tearfully bouncing each other off the sides of the tunnel. Having incapacitated herself, the female officer radioed for back-up and the CCTV recorded the unit’s ponderous arrival. Mr V was charged with assault and resisting arrest.
At the trial, I argued that the police hadn’t had reasonable grounds for making an arrest as they hadn’t asked Mr V for his address once the reasonable suspicion about his name arose. If general arrest conditions didn’t apply, then the officers had no power to arrest him and their actions were unlawful. Mr V was therefore entitled to resist. The magistrates reluctantly agreed and the charges were dismissed. For Mr V it was a moment of triumph: he’d been wronged and the court made it right. The officers were dumbstruck.
The distinction between arrestable and non-arrestable offences is important—it is a statutory limit on police powers. Or at least it used to be. On 1st January, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came into force. Buried away in part 3 of the act, section 110 removes the distinction. The effect is that the police can arrest you for any offence, even speeding. The reason for the change in the law was that the police, amazingly, found the distinction between arrestable and non-arrestable offences confusing and therefore inconvenient. If I were representing Mr V today, he wouldn’t have the legal protection he was afforded 12 months earlier. Despite the behaviour of the police, he’d be guilty as charged.
The whittling away of the provisions in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act is worrying. The act was introduced to define the limits of police powers by regulating how they deal with suspects and detained persons. This story from the backwaters of the criminal justice system shows what could happen when protections are taken away in the name of administrative convenience. Without laws to check state power, vulnerable people get pulled off the streets.