How to Get Nicked – for Beginners

If you go up to a police officer and swear at her she will warn you not to, and if you do it again she will probably arrest you under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. The law is that if you use ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words…which are likely to cause harassment alarm or distress to a person of reasonable firmess’ you have committed an offence. Police officers are rightly taken to have more ‘firmness’ than most people, so are less likely to be harassed alarmed or distressed. But the High Court held in 2007 that there is no rule of law that the offence cannot be made out when the only person who heard the words in question was a police officer (Southard v DPP). Bear in mind the words ‘likely to': you don’t have to intend to harass alarm or distress anyone. The Magistrates who try you will look at the circumstances and decide, objectively, whether your words made that outcome likely.

It won’t help if you tell the officer or the beak that you read on Twitter or in the Daily Telegraph that swearing at the police is OK. They will think you are an ignorant smartarse.

PS The Home Office have published a consultation paper about doing away with ‘insulting words’ as part of the Section 5 offence:¬†http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/police-powers/consultation-document?view=Binary

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About Francis FitzGibbon QC

I am a QC and member of Doughty Street Chambers, London (www.doughtystreet.co.uk). I practise criminal law. Please do not look for legal advice in this blog as you won't find any. The views expressed here are my own.
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4 Responses to How to Get Nicked – for Beginners

  1. rob says:

    “If you go up to a police officer and swear at her she will warn you not to, and if you do it again”

    But, but, but mister that kindly uncle Boris has told all, through some sort of conference, that zero tolerance should be shown to people who swear at the police. Isn’t he in charge of the police force in London. I sure he would come down very hard on any perpetrator who abused his force.

  2. goggzilla says:

    I did manage a “Motherfucker” whilst being strip searched in Essex.

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