Citizen Injustice

The story was so classically tabloid that the Sun might have made it up, although the farce did have serious consequences for actual people.

Last October at a family farm cum B&B in the Lake District, John Powell and his fiancée Lucy Walton were sick of young people partying in an adjacent lay-by. Picking up the resultant litter on their property was a perpetual headache. Kids driving across their fields had crushed crops, and one off-road spree had startled their valuable thoroughbred, which careened into a fence. Mr Powell told the Daily Mail, “We’ve phoned the police countless times to get them to help us, but we’ve had no support.”

So when yet another carful of youngsters parked beside their farmland, our intrepid twenty-somethings took matters into their own hands, larkishly concocting a plan, the macabre goofiness of which must have been influenced by Halloween’s proximity. Ms Walton spurted her top with ketchup and ran up to the car, with Mr Powell in hot pursuit wielding an axe. She tapped the car window in mock terror, crying, “Let me in, let me in!” — although Ms Walton claims she was laughing. Spooked, much like the couple’s thoroughbred, the teenagers did not, unfortunately for the smallholders, run into a fence, but drove to the police.

Who might have placed a simple phone call: “Hey, that was dumb, don’t do it again.” Instead, Ms Walton received a formal caution. Mr Powell was charged with possessing an axe in a public place (a crime I committed just last week, retrieving the dread implement from a hardware store to split kindling) and behaving in a way “likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress”. In February, the case went to court.

One detail is in dispute. The tragically traumatised teenagers claim that not only Ms Walton but Mr Powell tapped on their car window — with his axe. Mr Powell denies this, asserting that he only carried the axe over his shoulder, observing that had he knocked on glass with a four-foot axe he’d have broken the window. Either way? No one was hurt. No property was damaged. It was a joke.

British jurisprudence is notoriously humourless. Recall that last year’s exasperated airline passenger Tweeting to a girlfriend about “blowing the airport sky high” unless a delayed flight took off resulted in a conviction for sending “menacing” messages. But po-facedness is the least of the problem.

That case had no business in court. It was not in the public interest to expend state resources on a stupid, inconsequential prank. Moreover, cases against generally law-abiding Britons of similar triviality appear in UK newspapers daily.

As a rule, the instruments of state power function best when exercised on people who already follow the rules — who earn money, pay taxes, have jobs, and care about their reputations. These are the people whose addresses are on file; who biddably show up, punctually and on the appointed date, when issued with a summons; who have bank accounts to filch. With elements other than these mainstream goody-goodies, the  state flails: under-the-radar cheats, please-throw-me-into-the-briar-patch recidivists for whom prison offers welcome structure and regular meals. It’s challenging to police disorderly yobs with a minimal social stake (you can’t fine people who have no money). And to discourage young people from trashing that couple’s farm, the police would have needed to catch the kids in the act.

Although the youths in that car weren’t necessarily the ones who startled the horse or left their cider bottles behind, they were merely unnerved, neither person nor possessions accosted. Yet prosecuting the couple behind the hokey scare was easy. This was lazy, disproportionate policing.

The acquiescent citizen is always a soft target. So when rowdies elude discipline, you go after the taxpayer who tries to frighten them off. When burglars are escaping scot free, you charge the homeowner who defends his property with a firearm. When illegal immigration is out of control, governments the world over mistakenly bear down on legal immigration — the obedient types who fill out forms and pay fees. When billionaires and black-marketeers are driving holes through a shambolic tax system, too often some retired school teacher is unfairly harassed for unpaid spare change.  

But it’s the compliant citizen who also suffers most from the blunt instrument of legal prosecution. Ms Walton’s caution has disqualified her from returning to her job at Barclays. The court case has forced the couple to cancel their wedding and subsequent move to Australia, since Mr Powell has been sentenced to a suspended 84-day jail term and 250 hours’ community service. Whether or not the axe and ketchup ha-ha was ill-considered, ham-handed, overkill “justice” ruining decent people’s lives is no joke.

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