Are police allowed to not investigate crime?

    Are police allowed to not investigate crime?

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    Introduction

    On 18th May 2016 it was reported that police in Castle Cary, Somerset, were ‘too busy’ to arrest a drunk driver that had been reported to them.

    Is that allowed? Is it even legal?

    Factual Background

    Dale Bond, being a good citizen, had called the police to report that he was witnessing a crime in action – namely a lady who was ‘swerving’ in the road who he believed was under the influence.

    Mr Bond called 999 and was told to take her keys, and stay with her until the police came.

    So Mr Bond waited. And waited. Two hours later nobody from Avon & Somerset Constabulary had come, with Mr Bond being told that the police were “were too busy to investigate“.

    The case is now under review, and we will step away from the facts in case there are further proceedings.

     

    Don’t police have to implement the law?

    In short, no. Crimes are committed every day up and down the land (see, as an example, even the amended s5). If the police were obliged to investigate every possible criminal offence then they would be even more overburdened than they already are.

    The police have always been able to exercise discretion, although it is more and more becoming fettered. As an example, see the Merseyside Police – Crime Recording & Allocation (Policy & Procedure).

    In recent times the police, like all other agencies, have had cuts and have to prioritise which crimes to investigate.

    Any discretion must be exercised within certain parameters (see, in a different context, the statement in the Code of Ethics from the College of Policing). Declining to investigate a murder, for example, would be probably outside the range of reasonable responses.

    So it is with the police, also with the CPS in terms of who they decide to prosecute. In the famous words of Lord Shawcross, an illustrious Attorney-General, “It has never been the rule in this country – I hope it never will be – that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution“.

    As we say, this is not a reflection of this individual case.

    As to whether it could possibly be a criminal offence not to investigate, the answer is no. There is an offence of misconduct in a public office, which in theory could apply. But this would only really apply if an officer declined to investigate because they were bribed or something similar. It would not apply to a misjudgment as to how scarce resources should be allocated.

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    Dan is a barrister at 2 Dr. Johnson’s Buildings practising in crime.

    6 COMMENTS

    1. Is there not older case law that a police of over who declines to engage with an offence unfolding before his eyes can be guilty of an offence by not intervening? I have a dim memory from law school of an off duty copper deciding not to stop a fight that was fatal.

    2. This is quite interesting because in Germany it is exactly the other way around. Here we have the principle of mandatory prosecution (so-called Legalitätsprinzip). This includes a duty to investigate – provided that there’s sufficient cause based on facts (and not merely suspicion).

      Having said this, this general rule is significantly diluted by possiblities of prosecutors to dispose of a case, e.g. in case of minor offences. On top, there are certain crimes which can only be prosecuted if the victim takes some kind of action.

      So in the end, despite the diferrence regarding the general rules, the results might be similar in practice.

    3. In my area over the years our local plod has consistently failed to meet national standards. On several occasions I have reported crimes and I have had little reaction except to be given a crime number and told to move along. On the one occasion they have reacted, when two local “yoofs” threw a lump of concrete through my car windscreen whilst I was driving, I was told not to apprehend them as I might be charged with assault and when they finally turned up and I pointed the perpetrators they subsequently refused to prosecute and told me just to claim through my insurance. Apparently it was my word against theirs. A friend of mine, now a retired DI in our local shambles, says its nothing to do with resources, just lack of leadership, direction and wrong priorities. Chief Constables are more interested in the politics.

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