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Two instances of the police getting above themselves

Thanks to the wonders of the internet I found out via US blogger Coyote about events in Richmond upon Thames. I used to go into Richmond every Saturday with a gaggle of other eleven year old girls to shop for three hours and eventually buy a notebook with a picture of a cat on it for seventeen and a half pence. Perhaps the place has gone downhill since I knew it: now it seems that the police of Richmond are taking valuables from unlocked cars “to drive home an anti-theft message.” It’s all right, you get your valuables back. Eventually. But you have to go round to the station to do it. You know, in some circumstances, that might be troublesome.

Can anyone versed in the laws of England explain whether this is, if not theft, at least “taking without the owner’s consent”, as the charge sheets for joyriders used to say?

On the same theme, Longrider has a story about the police in Northamptonshire impounding cars if the same car with foreign plates is seen twice more than six months apart. A Mr West writes:

I live in Spain for about seven months of the year and France for the other five. My Spanish-registered car was impounded in March after two short visits to the UK within nine months of each other.

At the start of 2009, a pilot scheme called Operation Andover started in Northamptonshire, with any foreign vehicle seen just twice, more than six months apart, being impounded without warning.

Once again, Mr West got his car back, eventually. But he had to fight not to pay a fee of several hundred pounds. As he points out, an enormously common reason for a foreign registered car being seen twice in the same place a year apart might be, not the effort to evade paying UK road tax that the police seem (pretend?) to suspect, but regular visitors coming to Britain at about the same time every year.

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24 comments to Two instances of the police getting above themselves

  • It’s not theft because of the lack of intention “to permanently deprive” (sic). Taking without consent was the offence created for joyriders precisely because they were not guilty of theft, but TWOC (as it was known in the biz when I was in it many moons ago) was for the vehicles only. The victims could just sue them for the costs incurred and perhaps ask for punitive damages to reflect their abuse of their public trust. For most people, this is way too much trouble, which is what they are counting on. And the taxpayer would pay the damages anyway. Sigh.

  • Thanks for that, Tom Paine. I had half-remembered something along the lines of the “intention permanently to deprive.” But given that, if I have understood correctly, TWOC-ing is a lesser offence but still an offence, with any luck the police will end up annoying someone with the time and money to hit back. Richmond is full of lawyers.

    I can hope, anyway.

  • perlhaqr

    Well, that sounds like a great way to encourage tourism.

  • Snag

    Isn’t there some common law trespass offence being committed by the Police in the first case?

  • Marco Polo

    to evade paying UK road tax

    That deserves a spell in Guantanamo, I’d say. Or just shoot the buggers. That’ll put the fear of Government in them, ha!

  • guy herbert

    Or just being a foreign resident who brings their car here when they are here. Perfectly legal.

  • Zubb

    Natalie – TWOC only applies to taking of a vehicle, not items from it. Bloody stupid way of doing an anti-crime message though…

  • guy herbert

    … As long as it is for no more than 6 months in 12. Nottinghamshire police are proceeding on the principle of guilty until proven innocent. This is not just a problem with the police but the whole modified justice system these days.

  • Guy, yes, the principle at the core of this is “guilty until proven innocent.” Most people won’t see it that way at first, though. What they will see is that increasingly, for law-abiding people, the police come into their lives as troublemakers having gone out of their lives as guardians.

    Thanks for the info, Zubb. But surely there is something illegal about taking people’s stuff without their permission?

    Perlhaqr, indeed. The story caught my eye because our family have often gone to France in the same week every year. If the French police were to act the same way we’d be in trouble. However if you follow Longrider’s link to the Connexions magazine it seems the French police are useless in a different way.

  • MarkE

    I regularly work overseas and, if the impounding of “foreign” cars seen too frequently catches on, I’m going to have a problem. Usually I simply drive to the airport, fly to wherever I’m working and rely on public transport while I’m there, but there are times when I might choose to take the car to have it available while I’m away. At the end of each contract I return to the UK and start looking for my next role, which may be in the UK or elsewhere (I tend to favour Europe as it means I can get home more frequently)

    Given a nine month contract in say the Netherlands, my car might be seen very regularly for the duration of the contract; am I really supposed to reregister my car every time I start a new job? What about a job that is extended unexpectedly; my current role was expected to last three months but is now approaching nine. When should I reregister the car?

    I am not the only person working in this way, and others don’t live in the UK. Looks like it might get difficult to recruit obscure skills for projects in the UK.

  • guy herbert

    I wonder whether seizing a car with EU numberplates on such a basis might not be fundamentally unlawful in European Law as an interference with the free movement of EU citizens. (The bit about the EU that I really like is the free movement of goods and people.)

  • GF

    The BBC asked a solicitor about the relevant law:

    But lawyer Orlando Pownall QC, who lives in Richmond Hill, said: “It undoubtedly is a trespass and there could be civil proceedings if a person shows a damage or loss has resulted from the trespass.

    “Police need to ensure that information on a computer or mobile is not looked at and kept in a secure place – otherwise it could be an intrusion.

    “It might also be worthwhile for officers to take a photo like traffic wardens.”

    But like someone earlier said, it’d only be the taxpayers paying for it anyway. If we had some real power over the police, it’d be a different matter, but of course we don’t, despite Peel’s principles…

    There’s one point that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere [I first read about this at reason.com]: isn’t it a shame that it now is beyond acceptablity to just leave cars unlocked? What if we consider the area to be safe? Isn’t that our prerogative? The police action here is absurd on its face precisely because no-one had taken the stuff yet at that point in time.

    What next: the police stabbing us because we’re not wearing knife-proof vests?

  • The principle that the police should be subject to the law, and in particular to the same laws that other people are subject to (and that they should have few if any powers that other people do not have) seems to be so far gone now that you will just likely get a “huh?” from most people (and certainly from police) when you make such a suggestion.

    I wonder whether seizing a car with EU numberplates on such a basis might not be fundamentally unlawful in European Law as an interference with the free movement of EU citizens. (The bit about the EU that I really like is the free movement of goods and people.)

    There is a subtext in both issues Natalie talks about (and in particular the impounding of foreign cars) which is that police and other authorities have a certain lack of imagination about how people can and do live, and that any behaviour outside their preconceived ideas is clearly due to dubious motives of some kind. Some people live lives that involve traveling around a lot, for various reasons. There are lots of perfectly innocent reasons why a foreign car might regularly enter the UK, and yet the only one the police can think of is “Cheaper road tax abroad”.

    Reminds me of the time I was attempting to leave Poland and the Polish border official became very suspicious of me simply because I was making my fourth visit to Poland in two years, and I had visited unfashionable places. Apparently having stamps from all of Warsaw, Szczecin and Katowice, combined with the fact that I was visiting Gdansk in the middle of winter led to contemptuous dismissal of my claim that I was visiting simply because I liked Poland, it was insinuated that I was working illegally in Poland, and I spent twenty minutes being questioned and having my (battered) passport scrutinised with a magnifying glass. Eventually the official realised that she had no choice but to let me go and did so, but it was obvious that she thought I was up to something and that she didn’t really want to. My passport was full of stamps from all sorts of other places, which I fear made it worse rather than better in her eyes.

    This sort of thing is one reason why I took the option of becoming a British national last year. Officials and governments in other EU countries are obliged to treat you the same as they do a local, and they are not permitted to stamp passports of EU citizens, precisely due to fact that (as a legal principle at least) it is no business of the officials how often you visit or why (at least to the same extent that it is no business of theirs why a local citizen is visiting). This sometimes doesn’t prevent local officials from trying to intrude into your business, particularly in former communist states where there is a tradition of intruding into other people’s business and doing so is something they tend to do out of habit, but they back off quickly if you challenge them. This is an area where EU membership has forced liberalisation, so I have to agree with Guy about liking this aspect of the EU.

  • Lee Moore

    I thought there had been a case in which their Lordships had concluded that taking something for a short time, intending to return it later, was nevertheless theft as the owner had been permanently deprived of the use of it for the period of its absence. Sounds exactly like the sort of thing their Lordships would say.

    But I also think you have to prove dishonesty so the police would probably get off on that. (In this particular instance, I stress.)

  • manuel II paleologos

    Richmond seem to be in the news a fair bit for this kind of thing. Weren’t they the ones who pioneered the idea of charging people for driving cars they didn’t like (4x4s etc)? You can see why Zac Goldsmith sees this as fertile ground for his “rationing on holiday flights” brand of conservatism.

    Just got back from a holiday in the US where I was laughed at by the locals for locking my car (no need for it) and very few people lock their houses even for a lengthy trip away. Would like to see a Richmond policeman try to take something from a big Chevvy truck anywhere over there.

  • renminbi

    I would NOT recommend leaving your car unlocked in the US as a general rule,certainly not anyplace near an interstate.

  • renminbi

    I would NOT recommend leaving your car unlocked in the US as a general rule,certainly not anyplace near an interstate.

  • Jerry

    If item(s) are taken, a note left to notify the owner of his horrible misdeed of leaving something of HIS OWN in HIS OWN vehicle, is there a fine upon retrieving said item(s) ??

    If so, this is simply another source of revenue ( if there isn’t enough ‘crime’ that results in revenue – speeding, crossing against the light, having an unregistered carving knife, – then create some !!! )
    If there isn’t a fine, the police are wasting their time
    ( more of it anyway ) and committing a crime in the process.
    Also, what if a note ISN’T left ? Whose to say ?? What assurances are there ?? Police honesty ?? Surly you jest !!!
    Let’s see, no note, ergo item(s) must have been stolen by some low-life. Police report filed ( which will accomplish NOTHING – in ANY case, not just these ).
    AND some policeman ends up with said item(s) for FREE, but of course no policeman would ever actually DO THAT would they ?? ( yeah, right, they are ALL as pure as the driven snow )

    If some officer is caught, well I know what I think should be done with them.

  • llamas

    I can’t even get my mind around the sheer outrageousness of the first story. It’s theft under colour of authority. Yes, I know all about the mens rea and the ‘intention to permanently deprive’, and of course the jumped-up jack-in-office who thought this up will say that of course the police never have the intent to deprive anyone of their property –

    But when a neurosurgeon loses his case notes at the hands of some light-fingered bobby, and somebody’s operation has to be cancelled while he goes cap-in-hand to KoT police station to ask ‘please, may I have my own stuff back’? – will it seem like such a good diea then?

    To the victim – it’s indistinguishable from theft, and so it is theft. The ide of leaving some coy note in the vehcile is more bloody laughable than I can describe – the lock-and-jimmy men who cruise the streets of KoT will have that copied and be distributing their own versions in hours. If that.

    And, of course, knowing police bureaucracy of old, when you show up to collect your stolen property, the officer who is in charge of giving it back to you will have ‘just slipped out for a minute’, and then when he finally returns, you’re going to have to produce receipts and records to prove that your own property is your own property, and before you know where you are, they’ll have a ‘policy’ that PCs and phones will be swept and copied – just routine, you can’t be too careful, can you? As we saw with Mr West, who had to fight hard, far from home, to get his car back and avoid an absorbent penalty into the bargain.

    How about those coppers who will be walking around trying car-door handles get put on the duty of catching those people who make their living from trying car-door handles? Or even – perish the thought, if they find an unlocked car – lock it up?

    As to impounding people’s cars – on what possible grounds? If the mere presence of a foreign-registered car on two occasions is grounds for immediately impounding it, then by simple logic, its’ mere presence on a single occasion is likewise grounds for impounding it.

    Who thinks of this stuff? Who is so idiotically-disconnected from the real world that this seemed like a good idea? Surely any real copper, with real experience of how criminals work to deceive, would quickly see that such a scheme is vastly-more likely to entrap the innocent than to capture the guilty? Or is it that they just don’t care – better that 100 innocents become embroiled in the system than that one guilty man goes free?




  • pacific_waters

    Natalie, The obvious answer is to simply say that not knowing their age we are charging them as adults until such time they reveal their age. They could always be held until identified.

  • JohnK

    It strikes me that this scheme is a great idea for any light fingered coppers ( and they do exist). They have carte blanche to nick stuff from parked cars, and if challenged have got a ready made excuse. Trebles and hooky satnavs all round!

  • George Bruce

    Yet another reason not to visit Britain.

    I am finding fewer and fewer reasons to ever want to leave Texas.

  • CJF

    I trust they check the vehicles, or any contents, for booby traps, prior to handling items or moving them.

  • Midwesterner

    It occurs to me that in the US, thieves work for a commission set by market prices. In the UK, you put them on the government payroll.