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.)

Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear