This month I should have been embarking on an exciting new adventure, as I was applying to join the Special Constabulary to work as a volunteer part-time police officer. Instead, that’ll have to wait at least six months, and now I’m sitting here telling you this rather ironic story. It’s a long one, but I’ll try to keep it light…
It all started in December last year. I’ve already written about how the Procurator Fiscal used an underhanded tactic to seize some work photos I took of people involved in an altercation at the local Sheriff Court. But it turned out, that was just the beginning.
After seizing the photos, the police took a statement from me. Or at least they began to. When I told them truthfully that I hadn’t heard any of the exchange between the people at court, and I hadn’t seen any sign of physical threat from the person they were interested in, the police stopped the interview. Rather than take an honest statement that undermined their case, they decided to not take any statement at all. That, I was assured by the Fiscal, took my photos out of the equation – they couldn’t be used as evidence without an accompanying statement from me. But that wasn’t true. The case went ahead, using my photos as evidence. The accused was sentenced to 243 days in prison, according to the Crown Office, or 364 days, according to the Procurator Fiscal.
It was around this time that I started noticing police cars everywhere: Parked near my home, pulling up near me in car parks, driving behind me at all times of day. I wondered if they had information that someone connected to the court case was out to get me, and they were making sure I was safe. But if that was it, why were they following me around when I was driving? I have a naturally suspicious mind and I soon jumped to the fanciful conclusion that the police were trying to catch me doing something wrong. The more I tried to reject that suspicion, the more I noticed police cars in my rearview mirror, and the more I became convinced that the police didn’t have my best interests at heart.
Things escalated dramatically when I pulled up at the scene of a minor road traffic collision in April. Before I was even out of my vehicle I was approached by a police officer, who told me I’d be arrested if I tried to take photos of the scene. He was immediately confrontational and aggressive. I told him that I was there to do my job and I had to do it. He repeated that I’d be arrested. I parked up a good distance away, walked to the scene, and got on with taking photos. Within moments the sergeant in charge of the scene stopped me and told me I was committing a “criminal offence” by standing on the grass at the side of the road. The nicest word I can think of to describe his demeanour was that he was very “excitable”, and I found his behaviour worrying enough that I started a video recording on my phone in case he did arrest me. That seemed to anger him, and he physically restrained me, and ordered me to leave the scene. I stood my ground, and eventually he released me and I completed my work. He was still angry as I left, and he said he’d never allow press to photograph an accident scene again.
About a month later, at the end of May, I was covering another RTC. When I arrived at the road block and identified myself, the officer on duty radioed down to the sergeant in charge of the crash scene, who replied that he wasn’t allowing press access. That was unusual, and certainly not within the police’s authority. The newspaper had established that all casualties had already been taken away, so there was no ethical reason not to photograph the scene. Fortunately, although the road had been closed to vehicles, it hadn’t been closed to pedestrians, so I walked down to the scene.
As I approached, it appeared that a police car had been involved in the crash. That would explain why the police didn’t want press to photograph it. I took some photos from a distance, and then moved closer. I noticed that the police sergeant who had behaved so oddly a month ago was on duty at this scene. I decided it was best to avoid any interaction with him, so I went away from the road and in to a nearby field.
As soon as I stepped in to the field, the sergeant and another officer left the cordoned-off accident scene, climbed over a fence, and rushed over to me, telling me I had to leave and saying I was violating the police cordon. I pointed out that I was well away from the cordon. So the sergeant said he’d arrest me for “vandalising” the field instead. As before, he physically restrained me, and began pushing me backwards. I moved back… and back, and back, until he stopped pushing me. Finally he asked me if I was going to cross the police cordon. I said I wouldn’t. I took my phone out to call the office. With hindsight, I can only assume the sergeant thought I was going to video-record him again. He grabbed my arm and told me I was under arrest for “obstruction”.
I was hand-cuffed, put in a police car, and driven to a police station 30 miles away. I was searched, charged, given a police warning, and released, in a t-shirt in heavy rain. It was late on a Saturday afternoon in the Scottish Highlands. Getting back to my truck by public transport wasn’t going to be easy. A taxi was going to cost £50. I’d missed half a day’s work. Because I walked on some grass.
Now, for anyone outside Scotland, there’s something you need to know: You can walk through fields here. It’s not illegal. It’s specifically protected in law, in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. And although not relevant in this case, if there’s a crop then you can still walk in the field, you just have to stay at the edge.
There’s also the glaring issue that “obstruction” is a very specific offence, and there’s no plausible way a senior police officer could claim I had committed it. The offence of obstruction is committed when a person takes deliberate unlawful actions, believing that those actions will hinder or prevent the police from conducting their duties. Standing in the field was lawful, and any police officer should have known that. With just the working knowledge of the law that any journalist needs, I knew that my actions were lawful, so I had no reason to think I would attract police interference, or hinder or prevent the police from conducting their duties. None of the criteria for the offence of obstruction were met.
You may think the story would end there, albeit with the rather ugly ending of me having a police warning on my record. But it gets worse. Supported by the National Union of Journalists, I went through the process of challenging the warning. We were then told that there was no warning to challenge. Behind the scenes, the police had cancelled the warning and referred me to the Procurator Fiscal for prosecution.
Did you know they could do that? I didn’t. Here’s what is written on the warning:
This is an alternative to prosecution. Police Scotland considers that there is sufficient evidence to justify a report to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration of a prosecution and on this occasion Police Scotland have exercised discretion not to report the matter.
But it turns out, having given you the warning, they’re free to cancel it and report you anyway. This is something the police can just do if they feel like it. It doesn’t seem to be considered a breach of procedure, or even out of the ordinary. They can literally give you an official document saying you won’t be prosecuted, and then try to get you prosecuted anyway.
And that brings us up to date. Three months have now passed, and I hadn’t heard anything from the Procurator Fiscal. I contacted them yesterday, and received this reply today:
This case and what, if any action, may be appropriate are both matters which are presently under consideration.
The knock-on effect of all this is that I can’t be on the next intake of recruits for the Special Constabulary, and I’ll have to wait til next year. I hoped the recruitment team may be able to exercise some discretion, but they told me today:
You should wait until the case has been resolved before applying. The case will be showing as pending on your file and we wouldn’t be able to consider your application without knowing the outcome of the trial at court.
Once the case has been to trial, even if I’m convicted, I may still be able to join the Specials. But due to a technicality I can’t join while the case is pending, and the Fiscal seems happy to keep me hanging on.
I’ll let you know what happens, if it ever happens.