Monday, 30 March 2015

Council's creating "bizarre" criminal offences

People meeting to show off their cars in a car park
A car-meet at a retail park

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) allow councils to ban all kinds of behaviour that would otherwise be lawful and, in effect, to turn that behaviour into a criminal offence.  Personally, I'm not keen on local authorities having too much power, particularly after many were found to be abusing powers under RIPA to undertake intrusive surveillance to catch relatively petty criminals.

A PSPO allows councils to impose on the spot fines of £100 against people breaching the orders.

Examples of current PSPOs include:
  • A ban on motorists entering a retail park in Colchester, Essex after 6pm unless they are using shops and facilities
  • Criminalisation of begging for money in certain areas of Poole, in Dorset
  • A ban on the consumption of alcohol and legal highs in public spaces in the city centre by Lincoln Council
  • Outlawing the possession of an open container of alcohol in Cambridge
All of these examples have very worthy aims; the retail park ban aims to stop people meeting in car parks and showing off their cars, something that is reasonably common in Essex.  The bans on begging, consuming alcohol and possessing open containers of alcohol are there to prevent anti-social behaviour.

But, there is one question I'm confused about.  It's already an offence to be drunk and disorderly.  It's already an offence to drive dangerously or without due care and consideration for other road users.  Why not simply rely on the existing law?  Why is it necessary to give local councils powers to effectively create criminal offences at will?

Councils should, in my opinion at least, ask themselves whether imposing a PSPO is the most proportionate response to the problem.  For example, if people are meeting in car parks at night then why not advise the land owner that the gates should be locked at the close of business.  Most shops close between 6 and 8pm - you'll find that if people attending car meets have their cars locked in the car park over night they will stop meeting there, which is surely the point of the PSPO.

If people are drunk and disorderly then deal with them for that offence - if they are not drunk and disorderly but just minding their own business then what is the problem with them having a drink in a public area?

It is the fashion in the UK currently to identify things we don't like and then ban them - or at least attempt to ban them.  I have long said that using the criminal law to modify behaviour is much like using a sledge hammer to de-shell a peanut

Monday, 16 March 2015

Alleged drink driver commits suicide

Joe Lawton
Joe Lawton, who committed suicide after a drink driving arrest
I read today of the inquest into the death of a 17-year-old who committed suicide in August 2012 after being arrested for drink driving two-days earlier.

There is a view among many that people who drink and drive are irredeemably evil and deserve nothing but the hatred of society.  My specialism is defending people accused of drink driving offences; I used to use Twitter quite a lot and on Twitter a well-know TV doctor once made a sly dig in my direction along the lines of you have the right name for somebody who represents drink drivers.  My name, of course, is Nick Diable and Old Nick is one of the names of the Devil while Diable is the French word for Devil.  I can only presume that he was implying that drink drivers are all as evil as the Devil.

The truth is that some of those accused of drink driving are not guilty at all.  While the overwhelming majority of accused people (even the guilty ones) are not in any way evil or even bad people.  Most people accused of drink driving that I come into contact with have made a genuine mistake in underestimating the effect alcohol will have on them (my science teacher at school - a biologist - was convinced he could drink three-pints and be under the drink driving limit, he was probably wrong) or they don't realise how long alcohol remains in their system after a night drinking (one driving instructor I represented had left 12-hours between drinking and driving thinking that would be enough time - it wasn't).

I often hear people saying that we should reduce the drink driving limit to zero and that way everybody will know that you cannot have a drink and drive.  But, that doesn't deal with the people who don't understand how long alcohol takes to be eliminated from their bodies.  I suspect that all a lower limit would do is increase the numbers arrested the following morning  and would include those below the level where their driving is impaired by the alcohol in their bodies.  As with most things, education is the key.

The case of Joe Lawton also highlights another, unrelated issue.  In police custody suites the law says that 17-year-olds are treated as adults, although they are not treated as adults in most other areas of life, for example a 17-year-old cannot join the army without their parents permission and cannot vote at all.  A 17-year-old at court is treated as a child and appears in the youth once charged.  So, why are 17-year-olds treated as adults in the police station?  It's a mystery that I cannot explain.

I was very sorry to hear of the death of Joe Lawton.  I hope that this does not happen again to any other families.