One of the great virtues – as well as one of the dangers – of trial by jury is that jurors are able to to take a broader view of justice than a strict interpretation of the law always dictates. The constitutional right of any jury to blow a raspberry at what they consider to be an improper prosecution is a formidable guarantee against state oppression that justifies the occasional perverse acquittal. Older readers will recall that jurors exercised such a right in the teeth of the evidence that Clive Ponting had breached the Official Secrets Act; and – rather less defensibly – to acquit Michael Randle and Pat Pottle of helping the Soviet spy George Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs gaol, despite the defendants having written a book explaining in considerable detail exactly how they managed it.
The decision of a Luton jury to acquit Leighton Buzzard garage owners Richard and Bernard Baldwin of attempted murder, attempted GBH, dangerous driving and carrying a loaded shotgun in a public place appears at first sight almost as perverse. Richard, ably assisted by his pensioner father, had admitted discharging a twelve bore shotgun three times in the vicinity of terrified police officers Marcus Myers and Russell Mapley. The officers understandably believed that they were about to be murdered, or at least severely injured.
The gun Mr Baldwin used was legally owned. Indeed, the evidence at the trial revealed that he had a legal arsenal to choose from, including an automatic Beretta shotgun and a sniper’s rifle said to be capable of killing an elephant at two and a half miles. When his garage was burgled, by people he believed to be Irish travellers, he did the correct thing and called the police. PCs Myers and Mapley, travelling in an unmarked white van, were despatched to investigate, but ordered to turn around before arriving. Thus it was that the Baldwins, who have been plagued in recent months by unsolved and, in their view, under-investigated burglaries, threats and even an apparent kidnapping, decided to turn detective and, according to the prosecution case (which the jury rejected) judge, jury and executioner too.
Spotting the officers’ unmarked van in the road nearby they jumped to the conclusion that it contained not cops but robbers. They got into their own van and proceeded to shoot at the officers’ van while careering through the Bedforshire countryside at speeds approaching 100 MPH. It may sound like a bargain basement Leighton Buzzard remake of the High Chaparral, but to the officers under fire it was far from amusing and unquestionably terrifying.
In fact, the verdict was not as perverse as it may seem. The Baldwins had a defence. Under a combination of S.3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 and S.24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 an ordinary citizen is entitled to use reasonable force, not just to defend himself, but also – as long as certain very tight conditions are fulfilled – to effect the arrest of someone he reasonably believes to be guilty of having committed a serious offence. One of those conditions is that the person is “making off before a constable can assume responsibility for him.” Even though the persons “making off” at 100 MPH were in fact police officers, the Baldwins’ belief that they were burglars – which the jury thought was reasonable – entitled them to use reasonable methods to stop them. It is a law which protects have-a-go-heroes, even when they are mistaken.
One would not expect the police to be terribly happy about the outcome, and it’s not impossible that when Mr Baldwin’s firearms licence comes up for renewal he will face some searching questions from the Chief Constable. Even those who are very sympathetic to the Baldwins might still feel that the verdict risks encouraging a firearms culture which rural Bedfordshire, including those parts of the Dunstable Downs where elephants still roam, would be much better off without.
Yet the case also demonstrates that the police overlook some types of relatively low level crime like burglary and harassment at their peril. It is not just “property crime” when a commercial garage is broken into: it is a person’s livelihood. As it happens, Bedfordshire has one of the country’s lowest clear-up rates even for residential burglaries with no suspect being identified in nearly 94% of cases, so it looks like the Baldwins’ experience was far from unique.
If the perception spreads that the police are spending too much time, for example, policing offensive language on You Tube when they could be catching burglars then it is inevitable that vigilante justice is going to be encouraged, and vigilante justice – as the Baldwins case demonstrates – is very unlikely to be fair justice.
Police resources have of course been cut in recent years and difficult choices have to be made. Huge resources are now devoted to investigating alleged sex criminals from decades earlier; inevitably old, often ill and occasionally dead, men often posing no risk to anyone. Sometimes of course this is entirely justifiable, but as the Operation Midland and Ted Heath debacles demonstrated, vast sums of money spent dancing to the tune of fantasists reduces the amount available to spend on ordinary policing, and ultimately encourages the perception that DIY justice is the only thing available to victims of break-ins.
After many years of decline, there are worrying indications that violent crime is once again on the rise. This faintly farcical, yet very nearly tragic, case from Bedfordshire should remind police across the country that if they lose public support and respect the consequences could be very unpleasant indeed.
This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 8th June 2018