The conviction of Michael Thompson

Does warning other drivers about speed cameras constitute obstructing a police officer?

One day last July, Michael Thompson was driving in his car in Grimsby. He noticed a mobile speed camera. He also saw that many oncoming cars seemed to be speeding. He flashed those cars to warn them to slow down. It is not known whether any of the cars did slow down but, if so, the road was presumably safer for them reducing their speed and the public interest in drivers staying within the speed limit was achieved. Indeed, he later said that he was trying to warn motorists to prevent them from braking dangerously when they saw the speed trap.

However, Mr Thompson was not thanked by the police for any of this. Instead, according to the Daily Telegraph report, he was pulled over.

What happened next is not clear. It appears Mr Thompson made the mistake of challenging the police's actions. If so, it seems such petulance had a predictable response from officers who are used to exercising coercive power without any question or accountability. The Daily Telegraph report states that he was threatened – ludicrously – with "perverting the course of justice". If this was the case, it would be a good example of a police officer selfishly invoking the law without actually understanding it. And it would not be the first time.

In any case, the officers did not appear to take well to being challenged. The report states that one of the officers then told Mr Thompson: "I was going to let you off with a caution – but I'm not now." If this was said in this circumstance, then it suggests a deplorable and illiberal exercise of discretion by the police officer.

Mr Thompson is reported as stating that the officer was "a Rambo character", acting like "Judge Dredd" in using the law against him unnecessarily. It appears that Mr Thompson is suggesting that the police officer was being arbitrary and self-serving in the exercise of his or her powers. We do not know whether this was actually the case.

Nonetheless, the outcome of this encounter was rather unfortunate for Mr Thompson. He was charged, not with perverting the course of justice, but with wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duties. This is another criminal offence that police officers resort to when they do not get their way. According to Mr Thompson's account, it appears that the charge was made just because he dared to challenge the officers who pulled him over. However, we do not know whether this is what happened: it could just be his word against the police officers'.

But there is perhaps a more fundamental issue in all this, where there does not seem to be any dispute about the facts.

How can warning other motorists to reduce their speed be a criminal offence? The "course of duties" which is being supposedly "obstructed" is not the same as the mere convenience of police officers with their speed trap. Mr Thompson did not disable the speed trap, or stand in front of it. Nothing whatsoever stopped the police officers from detecting any speeding motorists at whom they pointed their mobile speed camera.

It seemed Mr Thompson simply warned others to regulate their future behaviour so as to eliminate their exposure to criminal liability. If this constitutes "wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duties" then it is what thousands of criminal lawyers do every day for their clients. It is what parents do for their children. It is what shopkeepers do with their signs against shoplifting. Indeed, it is what even police officers often do in the communities they serve.

Preventing police officers from seeking to impose as much criminal liability as they possibly can is not the same as "wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duties". Police officers' ability to arrest and charge is not an end in itself, but just one means of serving the wider interests of justice and the public. The criminal justice system does not exist solely for the satisfaction of a police officer wanting to coerce another human being.

In the end, poor Mr Thompson was fined £175 (and ordered to pay £250 costs and a £15 victim surcharge) after a half-day hearing last week at Grimsby Magistrates' Court. The full CPS statement for this seemingly illiberal prosecution is:

It was the Crown Prosecution Service's case that Michael Thompson flashed the lights of his car to warn other drivers of a speed trap ahead. In doing so, he was obstructing a police officer in the execution of their duty, which is a criminal offence contrary to the Police Act 1996, sect 89 (2). The CPS was satisfied that there was sufficient evidence and it was in the public interest to prosecute the defendant with this offence.

After hearing the prosecution's case and Michael Thompson's defence, magistrates at Grimsby Magistrates' Court found the case against him proved. They decided that he knew his action would cause vehicles to slow down and cause other motorists to avoid the speed trap and prosecution. They fined him £175 and ordered him to pay prosecution costs of £250.

The CPS press office also pointed me to the Highway Code, which contains the following:

Flashing headlights. Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there. Do not flash your headlights to convey any other message or intimidate other road users.

However, a breach of the Highway Code is not itself a criminal offence. It can act as evidence of a breach of a substantive motoring offence, such as dangerous driving, but to rely on it in this case seems rather desperate. In fact, a lot about this case as it is reported looks rather desperate. But sadly there is nothing surprising.

And so it does seem Thompson now has a criminal conviction because he encouraged others to stay within the law.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The top 10 reasons Brexit isn't working, according to Brexiteers

We'd have got away with it, if it weren't for that pesky Mark Carney. 

Over the next few years, it is likely that the economy will shrink, that the entire government will be consumed by trade negotiations at the expense of every other priority, and that EU leaders will use their considerable negotiation advantages to theatrically screw us. As this unpretty story unfolds, those who argued confidently for Brexit, in parliament and in the press, will feel compelled to maintain that they were right, and that if it hadn’t been for some other impossible-to-foresee factor everything would be going splendidly. What follows is an attempt to anticipate the most predictable post-rationalisations; I’m sure there will be more creative efforts.

1. WHITEHALL SABOTAGE. If we’re making no progress in trade negotiations, that’s because the civil service is doing its best to scupper a successful Brexit. That power-crazed madman Jeremy Heywood will stop at nothing to ensure he is bossed by Brussels, and the snooty bastards at the Treasury are working to subvert the national will out of spite. Even as our finest ministers strive manfully to cut Britannia free of its enslaving chains, all they hear from functionaries is “It’s a bit more complicated than that”. It’s only complicated because they want it to be.

2. REMAINERS TALKING DOWN THE COUNTRY. God knows we tried to reach out to them, with our gently teasing admonitions for being elitist snobs who just needed to get over it. But did they concede that a glorious future is at hand, if only we all wish for it? No, my friends, they did not. Instead, they sulkily point out how the things they predicted would happen are in fact happening, as if this somehow proves they were right. And since, inexplicably, the world agrees them, the whiners’ prophecy is being fulfilled.

3. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. It appears the UK economy has sunk into a recession. Now, the whiners will tell you that this has got something to do with the vast uncertainty created by taking a fundamental decision about the nation’s future without a clue about how to implement it. In reality, of course, the recession has been caused by the same global economic headwinds that had absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis, which was all Gordon Brown's fault.

4. ECONOMISTS. Since they nearly all said that Britain would be worse off if it voted Out, they now feel compelled to tell us that things are indeed worse. OK, maybe they are worse. But think about it: if we hadn’t voted Out, the economy might be even more calamitously buggered than it is now. This is logically unassailable. But do economists ever point it out? Do they Brussels. Yet sadly, global businesses, investors, consumers, and lots of other people who frankly lack gumption or vision, take these so-called experts seriously.

5. MARK CARNEY. Let’s get this straight: the Canadian governor of the Bank of England doesn’t want Britain to succeed, because then we’d be a direct competitor to his motherland. But with his honeyed voice and perpendicular jaw and incessant references to “data”, this man has gone a long way to convincing much of the public that he is some kind of disinterested authority on Britain’s economy. In reality, of course, he is out to destroy it, and seems to be making a pretty good fist of doing so.

6. EU BUREAUCRATS. You know those people we spent years attacking for being interfering, self-enriching, incompetent fools? Turns out they are now keen to make our lives as difficult as possible. The way to deal with this, of course, is to mount a national campaign of vilification. Another one. Before long they will be begging for mercy.

7. THERESA MAY. Look, we all wanted her to succeed. We knew she wasn’t one of us, but she wasn’t exactly one of them either, so we gave her a chance. Yet perhaps it is time to admit the possibility that the Prime Minister isn’t making this work because, when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t share our blood-pumping, sap-extruding belief in Britain unbound. In short, she’s just too damn reasonable. It’s time to embrace the unreasonable man. What’s Boris doing these days?

8. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (i). Not only can we not get the Remainers to present a united front to Brussels, it seems that we can’t even rely on our fellow Brexiteers. Most of us are on the same page: take back control of our borders, blue passports, compulsory blazers, onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands. But there are some among our own ranks who frankly don’t get it. These latte-sipping media types simper on endlessly about the importance of retaining access to the single market and seem awfully keen on Norway. Why don’t they just go and join Remain?

9. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (ii). Hey guys, the problem is this: Brexit got hijacked by the roast beef and two veg brigade, OK? For us it was always about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit, shaking off the dead hand of Eurocrat regulation, being more human, that kind of thing. We had to go along with all that anti-immigration stuff but believe me we were biting our tongues and crossing our fingers. Some of our best friends are Turkish.


Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.