Daily Archives: Sunday 24 January 2010

The offence of being cocky

I suspect that some Police Community Support Officers (PSCOs) might need retraining if, as demonstrated in this Guardian video, they believe that being “cocky” is now an offence and  justification for arrest.

Italian student Simona Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation for filming buildings in London. She was later arrested by other officers, held in a police cell and fined for the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress in a public place’.

It is interesting that although Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation, she was charged under the rather more everyday Public Order Act 1986, under s.5, which reads:

5. Harassment, alarm or distress

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling.

(3) It is a defence for the accused to prove—

(a) that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, or

(b) that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or

(c) that his conduct was reasonable.

(4) A constable may arrest a person without warrant if—

(a) he engages in offensive conduct which [F1a] constable warns him to stop, and

(b) he engages in further offensive conduct immediately or shortly after the warning.

(5) In subsection (4) “offensive conduct” means conduct the constable reasonably suspects to constitute an offence under this section, and the conduct mentioned in paragraph (a) and the further conduct need not be of the same nature.

(6) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale


Amendments (Textual)
F1S. 5(4)(a): by 1996 c. 59, s. 1 it is provided in s. 5(4)(a) the word “the” shall be amended by being left out the word “a” inserted

Interesting because I believe she might have had a defence under s.3, either (a) or (c), that there wasn’t anyone else around, or that she wasn’t being unreasonable.  Unless there is additional footage where she rants and raves at the PCSO, and despite his assertion that she is being ‘cocky’, she seems calm, measured and polite throughout.

I would be grateful if any readers with a less rusty legal knowledge would care to comment!

If it seems harsh to censure the individual PCSO, with the UK threat level now showing that something bad is ‘highly likely’ to happen somewhere soon, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he thought he was dealing with a real threat.  Although, it is telling that his colleague seems more reluctant to get involved!  That said, I think some urgent training on the law is required, not least because the blanket targeting of anyone with a camera will allow the real threats to slip the net.

People not being allowed to take medicines on planes, elderly relatives being asked to remove belts and shoes at airports, photographers being treated as terrorists, we all have tales of officialdom getting it wrong.  We would also be the first to howl when they didn’t stop the real terrorist, so it is important to acknowledge that there are no easy answers.  But to give up too much freedom in the name of safety, is to be left with neither.  To become suspicious of people going about normal activities is to lose any hope in humanity.  And if being cocky is indeed now an offence, then it is only a matter of time before they come for us all.  Simon Cowell should be very, very worried.
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