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 Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.