Often when I include an article about “zero tolerance” in True, I hear from people outside the United States who claim some variation of “only in America!”
Not so, of course. Some of the most outrageous examples happen in the British Commonwealth countries, including England. Such was the case this week (the 15 November 2009 edition), with this outrage:
Zero Tolerance in the Real World
— British Division
Paul Clarke, 27, a former soldier, was on the balcony of his home in Merstham, Surrey, England, when he noticed a bag in his garden that didn’t belong to him. “I took it indoors and inside found a shorn-off shotgun and two cartridges,” he said, so he took his find to the police to turn it in — “I thought it was my duty to hand it in and get it off the streets,” he said. As soon as he handed the gun to authorities he was arrested for “possessing a firearm.” Worse, the jury for the Guildford Crown Court found Clarke guilty, and by law he must serve a minimum of five years in prison. Prosecutor Brian Stalk said Clarke’s “alleged” honesty was irrelevant, and Judge Christopher Critchlow agreed, saying “The intention of anybody possessing a firearm is irrelevant.” (Surrey Mirror) …And now we know British jurisprudence is, too.
(By “real world” I mean not in schools. I’ve been railing about ZT for well over a decade, and most cases are in schools. But, as I’ve pointed out many times, kids grow up: they leave school and get jobs. And what else do we expect from them but to practice what they’ve learned in school?)
Far From School
I think Clarke is an idiot (and I’ll get to that in a minute), but the story is not just a great example of how ridiculous such policies can be, but a great example of how other countries sometimes take our worst ideas and really work to make them even more appalling.
No one seems to be of the opinion that Clarke had anything but honest intentions when he turned in the gun. However, the anti-firearms law in Britain has a “strict liability” clause. Here’s how it’s explained in the story I used as my source in the Surrey Mirror:
Prosecuting, Brian Stalk, explained to the jury that possession of a firearm was a “strict liability” charge — therefore Mr Clarke’s allegedly honest intent was irrelevant.
Just by having the gun in his possession he was guilty of the charge, and has no defence in law against it, he added.
In other words, per the law no defense, no matter how relevant, is allowed, period. Did he have the gun in his hand, yes or no? Yes: convicted, without any inquiry as to the reason. Thus, as the judge said, “The intention of anybody possessing a firearm is irrelevant.”
Now That’s Zero Tolerance!
It’s unbelievable that any court would take such a position — unless it has no choice under the law. So the real culprits here aren’t the prosecutor and the judge, but rather Parliament, which passed such a law.
Let’s take it to an extreme (as if Clarke’s case isn’t extreme enough): a citizen could see someone about to shoot the queen, and grab the gun away from the assassin. Thus according to the law, he should go to jail for that act of “possession”! In fact, there’s “no defense” and presumably will come away from the event with a criminal record.
Therefore citizens who witness a crime in progress must choose between actively allowing someone’s life to end, or ruining their own. The evil, then, isn’t the choice, but that one has to make such a choice according to the law.
That’s zero tolerance mentality at its worst.
But Wait: It Gets Worse
How could the situation possibly be worse? Here’s how: only two newspapers in Britain have dared to publish this story — the smarmy tabloid The Sun and Clarke’s home paper, the Surrey Mirror — my source for the story.
Why in the world haven’t we seen outrage from the national British press? I don’t have an answer to that, but I’ve had a lot of comments from readers in the U.K. that they’re surprised they have not seen mention of it in their papers.
Is the British press scared to stand up against an absolutely evil outrage? I wish I knew.
No Defense Allowed, But…
One English reader who saw the story in True wrote to say that Clarke won’t necessarily end up imprisoned for five or more years. Richard in England writes:
Paul Clarke is not due to be sentenced until 11 December and it might well happen that he is given an absolute discharge; even though the offence is one of “strict liability”. Whereas I agree that the law does, thus far, seem to have been rather ass-like, let’s wait until sentence is passed before making our own judgement.
The “absolute discharge” concept is not something I’m aware of from British law. (I certainly don’t claim to be well versed in it, let alone an expert.) When there’s a minimum mandatory sentence, one would think that is what’s meant.
Of course, “Life in prison” isn’t necessarily that here, either, so there’s obviously plenty of precedent for such nonsensical rulings.
Why is Clarke an “Idiot”?
I said earlier I thought Mr. Clarke was an idiot. Why?
- He found a gun in his garden — and picked it up?! Now he has his fingerprints on it, and he has thwarted investigation of who handled it before him. He removed it from its resting place, where police may have wanted to see how it was lying, what other evidence may be around it, etc. He could have destroyed crucial evidence in a murder case, for instance — who knows? He sure didn’t, but that evidence is gone now.
- He waited until the next day to turn it in!* That just makes sure that evidence is destroyed — and casts more suspicion on himself.
*(Actually, that was clarified later — to be even worse: Clarke waited until the next day to call a police official he knew, but the official was away. Clarke thus waited four days for that official to return before taking the gun to the police station.)
- He took it to the police, rather than call them to come get it? That’s just dumb, but it’s especially dumb in a culture that’s so anti-gun as Britain. Clarke’s lawyer tried to appeal to the jury with an argument about this. The Mirror reports:
[Defense attorney Lionel Blackman] also showed jurors a leaflet printed by Surrey Police explaining to citizens what they can do at a police station, which included “reporting found firearms”.
Quizzing officer Garnett, who arrested Mr Clarke, he asked: “Are you aware of any notice issued by Surrey Police, or any publicity given to, telling citizens that if they find a firearm the only thing they should do is not touch it, report it by telephone, and not take it into a police station?”
To which, Mr Garnett replied: “No, I don’t believe so.”
So while the law’s “strict liability” language makes things clear, the local police were not clear. But the law trumps a police pamphlet, and the jury convicted him anyway.
- Last, pulling a gun out in front of police officers is incredibly stupid. True, most officers in Britain aren’t armed, but if he had done that in the U.S., odds are every cop in sight would have drawn their weapons and had him up against the wall with a barrel pressed into his neck while they assessed whether there was a true threat — and I wouldn’t blame any officer for doing just that.
But Wait, There’s More
On top of all that, Clarke has been in trouble with the law before, and should have realized that he needs to take more care.
Bob in England alerted me to the previous case, from the same newspaper a year ago. In that case, Clarke was accused of assaulting a license inspector who was checking tax disks on cars. Clarke had allegedly confronted the inspector, and then beat him. He was cleared of the charge but, Bob wondered, “that perhaps throws a reason behind the police arresting him — revenge for getting off a charge the previous year.”
An interesting theory! Surely that was embarrassing to the police; might arresting him for gun “possession” be revenge? Might Clarke have been trying to look like a hero for turning in the weapon as “proof” he’s a good citizen?
Hard to say, but it’s stupid that he didn’t take more care. If he truly was innocent of the assault, he should know better than most how easy it is for innocent actions to look terribly bad, and should have taken the time to consider how he should deal with the police. And if he had truly been guilty and got off, it’s also stupid to thrust yourself into the attention of the police.
It’s ironic that as the U.S. wakes up to what a bad idea ZT is and is starting to take steps to eliminate it, other countries are not just embracing the concept, but their media are not even speaking out against the outrageous “justice” that results.
So for those who harrumphed that ZT is only an American idea, and they don’t need to be concerned? Think again. ZT may be coming to a police state near you.
Update: Clarke Goes Free
Paul Clarke was given a 12-month suspended sentence for his “strict liability” possession of a firearm on December 18, 2009. He had faced five years in jail.
Clarke took the stand in his own defense and, the local newspaper said, “sensationally claimed” that his delay in turning in the gun was due to his sexual relationship with a female Surrey Police detective.
“I didn’t call the police because I was sleeping with the detective. Another officer has got a bit jealous and I have had a lot of harassment from the police since then. I also didn’t want to call [emergency number] 999, [as] I didn’t want trigger happy police on my doorstep so I tried to call superintendent Harper instead.”
Tried and Failed
But Harper was “not available for four days” so he just kept waiting. “I just said I had something to give him, I didn’t want to say I’d found a gun because then he would have sent lots of police around. It could have been a duplicate or an antique and to be honest I was more concerned I would be done for wasting police time, it never even crossed my mind I would be arrested.”
Not surprisingly, Clarke said that “At the time I didn’t know anything about these strict liability laws, I didn’t realize I was committing any crime.”
Well, the prosecutor asked, didn’t he tell Superintendent Harper that he had found the gun, that he didn’t otherwise possess it? “I can’t remember my exact words but I did tell him, and the police officers all asked me to sign that piece of paper and I thought it would be easier to cooperate.” — yet the confession he signed didn’t happen to mention that he had found the gun.
So yes: I think Clarke is a major idiot.
“It was a highly unusual case and one in which there are exceptional circumstances that means it would be unjust to impose the minimum sentence,” said Judge Christopher Critchlow.
He added that holding the gun for four days before turning it in was “odd behavior,” and in fact a “very serious matter” that he didn’t turn it in immediately. “I therefore consider a term of imprisonment must be imposed to mark the gravity of keeping such a weapon and not immediately surrendering it to the police,” he said, but then suspended the one-year sentence he imposed.
“I understand you were once a soldier and you in particular ought to have appreciated the danger posed by such a weapon. You should have asked the police to come and collect it right away.”
The judge also addressed Clarke’s previous legal case, as discussed above: “I find this was a strange matter, it may have been something to do with your previous involvement with the police, but that does not justify not giving immediate notice that you had such a weapon, and wanted them to have it.”
A Surrey police spokesman issued this statement after the sentencing:
Clarke was given the opportunity to explain the full circumstances of how this lethal and prohibited weapon came to be in his possession.
This explanation lacked credibility and a report was submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Surrey Police stands by its decision to investigate and make its case to the CPS which decided that it was in the public interest to prosecute the case in court, and Paul Clarke was charged with possession of a prohibited weapon.
This case clearly illustrates the serious view which is taken of the possession of any prohibited weapon such as a sawn-off shotgun or shortened shotgun.
Such weapons are frequently prepared specifically to be used in the commission of serious violent crime.
Surrey Police is pleased that, having heard all of the evidence today, Clarke has been sentenced appropriately.
Bottom line: Clarke was certainly at least partially at fault for his poor handling of the matter, but he has been spared jail time. Something tells me this won’t be the last run-in he’ll have with the police; there may be another This is True story in his future!
But the bigger issue is still this: what British citizen won’t think twice if they find a gun dumped in their yard? Prosecuting someone under “strict liability” for “possessing” a gun they’re trying to turn in is a bad, bad idea when your goal is for people to turn in guns. Like, how about “delaying the reporting of a crime”? That emphasizes not only that guns should be turned in, but they need to be turned in immediately, not after four days.
So yes, while Clarke is an idiot, the police handled this very, very badly. (Update source)
I was right that we hadn’t heard the last of Clarke: he announced he was applying to be Surrey’s first police and crime commissioner, a new 70,000 pound-per-year (US$111,500) elected position.
Yet he campaigned on a promise to not accept that salary. “I challenge anyone else standing to do it for free, as I will,” he said in his announcement. “It’s a matter of principle for me. I just want to do a good job.”
“I’m the ideal candidate,” he told reporters. “The police don’t like me, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them for years. I’m no angel.”
“This isn’t a job for a politician,” he continued. “You don’t want a political commissioner. The police need to operate independently of any political party or links.”
His Opponent’s Platform
One of the other candidates for the position was Robert Shatwell, a former Surrey Police officer who served for 18 years with the constabulary. A member of the right-wing UK Independence Party, Shatwell said he’d promote a “zero-tolerance” approach to crime. Oh dear. That’s even the wording he used.
“UKIP stands for zero tolerance of criminal behaviour,” he declared. “At present there is no deterrent being used to reduce the number and severity of the crimes being committed.
“I believe, as does my party, that prison sentences should be used as a deterrent and should mean what they say. At present, sentences are far too lenient and if a custodial sentence is given the criminal knows they will only serve half of it before being released on licence.”
Makes you wonder if he was actually referring to Clark: he faced a “five-year minimum” sentence, was actually sentenced to one year, and then even that was suspended. That article (linked below) noted the names of all the official candidates …and Clarke wasn’t mentioned. It’s unclear whether he dropped out, or didn’t file the papers to actually run, which would make his announcement more of a publicity stunt, in my opinion.
In the end Kevin Hurley, an Independent candidate, and former police commander, won the job. He was also known to be “zero tolerance” in his views, but I didn’t find any details or statements about what he meant by that. The bottom line, though, is ZT thinking is well ingrained in the U.K.
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