The continuing saga of drivers illegally using Exchange Street as a rat run – and the police’s refusal to prosecute them – reached its nadir with the arrest instead of someone for standing in the pedestrianised street. Harry Mach tells his story
My ordeal began on an ordinary road in Norwich which has been pedestrianised for over two years. It’s a narrow “urban canyon”, should never have been open to motor traffic, and would be far more pleasant without it.
Unfortunately, any attempt to enjoy this new pedestrianised space is spoiled by impatient arses whose desire to rat run in their cars outweighs basic niceties like obeying the law. After being run off the road a few too many times by these people, folks in the more radical of Norwich’s cycling groups (that is to say, not very radical) began to discuss what should be done. Reporting the crimes to the police goes nowhere. Asking the council for enforcement cameras goes nowhere.
At this point I should introduce the concept of “human bollards” which is where pedestrians quite literally act as a bollard to block vehicular crimes. This is done in Oxford by the Oxford Pedestrians Association, and famously in London by “Cycling Mikey”.
So on the 18th October last year I was doing some shopping in Norwich when, walking back through the market, I stepped onto Exchange Street. I paused to drink a coffee and stood in the middle of a pedestrianised street, right next to a No Motor Vehicles sign. Surely, by any sensible measure I had a right to stand there.
A car approached. A black BMW. It drove up to me. I simply didn’t move. I did take out my phone in case the driver tried anything illegal. Naively at this point I assumed the side of the law was on pedestrians in a pedestrianised zone, not criminal drivers ignoring basic road signs. I also assumed the fact that she was being filmed would prevent the driver later giving an account to the police that was…shall we say….not strictly in accordance with the facts as they could very easily be demonstrated to be.
She stopped and got out of her car to ask me what I was doing. I pointed at the very large sign right next to me and pointed out this road is a pedestrianised area. Rather than doing the sensible thing and turning her car around, she got back in her car and drove right up until she was 12 inches away from me. I am not sure what she expected. Being a stubborn arse, I didn’t back down.
By this point people had gathered. Some berated me, demanding to know why I was stood in the road. Other, much nicer, more sensible, and generally more well-rounded human beings came and stood next to me in solidarity.
One ruffian tried to shove me out of the road — a clear case of assault. Unfortunately at this point I did swear. At no other point however did I lose my temper, despite someone shouting at the driver to drive at me, and another person threatening to “knock me the spark out”. Even though this assault was clearly captured on CCTV, I would be accused of making this up in my police interview. After about 10 minutes of standing in the road, and it being clear the driver was going to keep trying to force her way through pedestrians, I gave up.
Instead I opted for just stopping cars for a moment, informing them I was recording and that the road had been closed for some two years, and then moving out of the way, intending to pass this to the police. How foolish. Won’t be doing that again. Norfolk Constabulary are very fast to move on a homeless person. A dangerous driver? Nah.
By this point some arguments had broken out between people supporting me, and, frankly, thugs opposing me. One had started threatening to punch someone for pointing out that the sign meant no entry. So I called the police. Someone else had apparently already done so, as they arrived moments later. I informed the first constable on the scene what had happened, including pointing out the individual who had threatened to assault numerous people. Another mistake. This merely identified me to the constable. Never assume the police are interested in the law.
Instead of doing anything about the people who were actually threatening violence, or the cars still ignoring the road signs, he opted to detain me with handcuffs. I asked if I was under arrest. He said no. So I asked him what power he was detaining me under. He refused to tell me, then said: “Are you going to let me do my job or give me a law lecture?”
The police do not have a generic power of detention and as such the use of handcuffs to detain was illegal. So I again asked him: “Under what power are you detaining me?” This is what groups such as Liberty tell you to do in such a situation.
He then lost his temper, and shouted “enjoy custody”. Again, for simply asking what legal power he was using. Disgraceful.
After talking to a bunch of people, and apparently threatening to arrest someone for telling him that the road was indeed closed to cars, I was arrested for obstructing a highway, threatening behaviour and assault, and taken away to Wymondham police centre. None of the three constables present did a single thing about the law-breaking drivers. I was literally held in handcuffs at the side of the road as the cars were waved through.
At the station we went through the checking-in process. Unlike the power-mad arresting officer, these people were somewhat polite. My possessions were searched and confiscated. Then fingerprints and DNA were taken (hopefully soon to be deleted) and I was taken to a cell and given some books to read.
You may think it wouldn’t take terribly long for someone to engage about three braincells and realise that asking someone not to commit a crime is not obstructing a highway, as the full crime is “obstructing a highway without lawful excuse”. Asking people to obey the law is, by very clear definition, a lawful excuse. Also, according to the police statements, they had in under an hour watched the CCTV and seen no assault had taken place, and that I had not threatened a single person.
I spent nine hours in custody all told. Eventually a custody sergeant led me through to the checking-in area. First I had a brief meeting with the duty solicitor, who seemed confused as to how the hell this amounted to obstruction or threatening behaviour.
Then followed a highly frustrating interview. They told me they have me on CCTV, which means they know I was assaulted but they insist no statement says I was assaulted and demand to know if I am calling their witnesses liars.
They spend a lot of time trying to effectively argue that black is white and get me to admit that a pedestrian has a duty to get out of the way of cars on pavements. Embarrassing really. They ask me if I think just anyone should try and uphold the law. An odd question for a police force: Peelian Principle Number 7 states “The police are the public and the public are the police”.
They then spent ages trying to persuade me that it was threatening behaviour to refuse to move out of a road. This again, is a nonsense. There was a pedestrian shouting for the driver to just drive at me and that “I would move”, and the driver responded by driving towards me. In a battle of what is more threatening, standing still and pointing at a sign is very clearly less threatening than driving a car at someone!
Despite the fact that the police had CCTV of her literally driving at me, they apparently did not charge her with either ignoring road signs or threatening behaviour. People talk about “car-brain” — in which the rights and privileges of a car driver are upheld above all else. Attempt to ask the police to enforce the law without fear or favour, and they will not. Crimes committed by a driver are secondary, and will often only get a warning letter, or offered a course at their convenience. Try and prevent a driver from committing an actual crime and you get nine hours in custody.
The police immediately abandoned their attempt to charge me with assault or deliberately intimidating people, and instead opted for a s.5 Public Order offence and obstructing a highway.
After being charged with these offences I was then eventually released, without a coat, at 10pm on a freezing night 15 miles away from my home, with a bus ticket. It took me over two hours to get home.
Despite the dearth of evidence, they rushed out a press release about me being charged with “threatening behaviour”. Being named and shamed in a press release the day after an arrest is definitely….something.
The first court date was set for December. They disclosed some evidence and their case summary the day before. This consisted of three witness statements, and some Body Worn Video footage. They opted not to disclose CCTV of the event, stating that it does not undermine their case.
Apart from the police officer’s statement, in which he claims that being asked under what power he has placed someone in handcuffs is argumentative, there are three statements. The BMW driver who claims to have been more terrified than at any other time in her life, a passer-by, and a child who claimed to have been twice assaulted by me. Just in case reading this leads to you suspect that I am a bad person, I would like to point out that these statements do not exactly, how shall I put this….correspond with the facts.
The description of the CCTV mentioned above states that the “Defendant does not appear to assault witness (redacted)”. Right….so it shows someone you intend to rely on in court has lied to you, but that doesn’t undermine your case? Interesting thought process there Crown Prosecution Service. Also this witness is a minor — are you asking a child to commit perjury?
The case summary makes no mention of the pedestrianisation of the road.
At the first hearing in front of some very polite magistrates, I enter a plea of not guilty. My solicitor presents my outline case. The magistrate is confused. He asks the CPS to work out the status of the road, and pointedly says that half their case goes away if it is pedestrianised. Interesting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the charge of obstructing a highway is dropped by the end of December. This is the first big relief. As part of their war on protest, our fine and majestic government has deemed obstructing a highway as worthy of prison.
So another review with the solicitor. If the witness statements are accepted by the court, they would convict. Doesn’t look brilliant. So we ask for the CCTV. Months pass. Two weeks out from the trial the CCTV emerges. It trashes the case on all but one aspect. The two key witnesses are very clearly lying. The driver isn’t scared, she gets out of her car and chats with people. She knows she is breaking the law, people have told her. She tries to intimidate other pedestrians with her car. And the child I violently assaulted twice? Absolutely clear that never happened. The only part of their case that could possibly remain is that a swore when someone assaulted me.
The police were fairly selective in what they initially disclosed concerning that moment, choosing to disclose only a mobile phone recording where the swearing could be heard, but the assault was off camera. With a proper camera angle you see someone literally hurl themselves at me. Again, interesting this didn’t make their case summary.
Which is still risky for me — the only plausible defence is to argue that it’s a reasonable reaction to being assaulted under s.5(3) of the Public Order Act. One would hope the magistrates would see sense. But it would still be an uncomfortable trial, because technically swearing at someone who has attacked you in public is all the components of an s.5 offence.
Fortunately, before we have to make that decision the CPS dumps the entire thing. They keep their reasons secret. But it’s a hell of a coincidence that within a week of finally having to disclose the clearest video footage of events, they drop the case like a hot potato.
The main one is that Norfolk Police are very bad at their job, and are holding onto officers that are incompetent, border-lining on malicious. By 9pm on the day of my arrest they knew that two of the statements they would rely on clearly could not stand up and were directly contradicted by video evidence. During the interview they insinuated I was making up having been assaulted, despite having watched that assault on video.
They selectively chose not to disclose evidence that their own summary said showed their witness statements as inaccurate, and labelled this as of no use to the defence. They deliberately made me out to be a violent thug in the media, despite having watched CCTV that showed that not only did I not threaten anyone, I was in fact a victim of assault.
If you’re going to protest in this country, be aware the police don’t really give a damn about your right to do so, and are fully prepared to make up absurd charges to interfere with it.
And remember, I am a moderately wealthy white man with a law degree, access to good quality private solicitors (there is effectively no legal aid for magistrates courts — if you don’t have a few thousand in upfront cash, you’re representing yourself), and a boss who was very sympathetic. I am more certain than ever that there are people without these resources routinely wrongly convicted in this country, or who plead guilty out of fear of the system they do not have the resources to fight.
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