Saturday, April 12, 2008

Innocent until?

A news story struck me today as I sat idly listening to the radio on the interminable 81C journey from Plymouth. It was one of those "not very important" stories which are buried about half way through a bulletin. The journalists have got their press release, so the people who want the story in the open can say they've told the public.

I'd hazard a guess that more or less everyone who reads this blog shares a sense of outrage when they see someone dropping litter; no less so when that litter is throw from a car window onto the verge or simply onto the street. Our government has decided to announce that it has drawn up plans to make the car owner responsible for any litter thrown or dropped from a car and thereby responsible, under new proposed legislation, to pay a fixed penalty notice of £80.

At first glance this looks like an attempt to put an end to a form of anti-social behaviour that no right thinking person could defend. But look a tiny bit deeper into what's being said here.

In this country someone is innocent until proven guilty. It is not up to the individual to prove their innocence, it is up to the prosecution (in this case representing the state or local authority) to prove that both an offence has been committed and that the person accused is the perpetrator. Who is to say that the owner of the car was even in the vehicle at the time the offence was noticed? How is it to be shown that the offence even took place in or from the car in question? Where is the proof?

The suggested change in the law is that for this offence the rule of the presumption of innocence will be suspended. I haven't read the exact wording of the suggested legislation, but the report from the BBC at suggests that the authorities are trying their authoritarian games again, pressurising (or possibly forcing) someone who is accused of an offence to either point the finger at another or admit guilt. Without proof being offered.

We have the same problem with the preponderance of speed cameras (and I deplore people who speed in the slightest hint of a built up area); your vehicle is snapped and then you are pressured into admitting an offence for which they, in all probability, have no proof whatever you committed.

Needless to say, most people simply write a cheque, accept the penalty points and curse their luck.

However (and I've done this personally) unless they can prove that it was you driving beyond all reasonable doubt, you have to be presumed innocent.

You have to be prepared to go to court (in my case twice) and face them down, but unless they've got a photo of you driving or there is no one else insured to drive your vehicle there has to be reasonable doubt. Therefore they have no option to dismiss any case against you. You just have to have the chutzpah to go through with it.

Innocent until proven guilty - it's a vital right and it's being slowly eroded. First speeding, now littering. You might think these two offences should be treated this way. But what will they suspend our rights for next? Call me paranoid, but remember that once lost, freedoms are very very hard to regain.

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