Defend Yourself and I’ll Sue
A recent spate of burglaries has the average British voter all riled up. We have reached that all too familiar pre-general election feud where silver-tongued partisans sit on Question Time telling us how they would change this and that law and improve this and that legislation — whether or not they will follow through with it all is, and has never been, what politics is really about. While I applaud government heads for their lukewarm efforts at making the world a better place, I do maintain my right to a little ounce of voter cynicism. I look at New Labour’s policies and the Conservatives’ policies and even Liberal Democrats’ policies and I wonder, “Under which government am I most likely to get away with smashing a burglar’s teeth in?”
The issue has been brought to the forefront after Munir Hussain, a 53-year old father and husband, beat one of his trespassers to the point of brain damage. Mr Hussain and his family were tied up, threatened and forced to crawl on the floor by three masked intruders, one of which was Walid Salem, the ‘victim’ of Mr Hussain’s attack. Mr Hussain, the real victim in this whole debacle, was sentenced to thirty months in prison, but eventually released on grounds of compassion and I hope, common sense. While some people would qualify Mr Hussain’s attack as an act of vengeance, anyone with a beating heart could imagine the adrenaline rushing through his veins after facing humiliation and life endangerment in his own home. Having managed to escape from the burglars’ captivity, Mr Hussain was in no state of mind to contemplate the rights and wrongs of his response. If anything, his was a crime of passion.
Though we would like to dismiss this case as a one-off, there is also the story of Tony Martin to add to growing list of legislative injustice. Back in August 1999, the middle-aged Norfolk farmer had to put up with several successive thefts until finally, during the umpteenth raid, he shot two burglars in the dark. One, a 16-year old Fred Barras, was killed, the other, Brendan Fearon, 32, decided to sue. Tony Martin served three years of his original five-year sentence, and has since been at the epicentre of the whole campaign calling for people’s right to defend themselves.
Polls suggest that a staggering seventy-two percent of the British public feel that the current legislation is “inadequate and ill-defined”, but never mind these damning indicators, MPs are telling us to leave our protection with the doddering, unpunctual police, which means we might as well let ourselves get robbed and violated. Lobbyists for an introduction of what has been described as “Tony Martin Law” include former Metropolitan Commissioner Sir John Stevens and, not so surprisingly, the Conservative Shadow Minister for Homeland Security, Patrick Mercer — perhaps just another sweet nothing whispered by the Conservative party into our hopeful ears, though I would like to think I will not be fooled that easily.
If viewed from the vantage of a helpless civilian, it is hard to tell whether it is the current law or its enforcement that should be put beneath the blaming finger. Right now, the law states that if confronted with a trespasser in your own home, you, the victim, are entitled to “reasonable force”, an amorphous and somewhat meaningless term, not something you have the time to think about when there is a clear and present danger lurking in your living room. Historically, this legislation has been intact since the 1960s, when Britain underwent a great overhaul in criminal law and sharply veered away from the private ownership of firearms, putting the safety of every Briton into the incapable hands of the government. While I am no fan of the American cowboy vigilantism that allows for some very mentally unstable people to own a gun, I do acknowledge the fact that rates of burglaries in the United States are half the rates of burglaries in Britain.
Thankfully, this country does not support the notion of vigilante justice, but a clear distinction needs to be drawn between touting a gun to kill and shooting it to protect yourself. Fifty-three percent of burglaries happen when families are at home, which means that you are more likely to stumble upon somebody climbing through your bathroom window than come home and find your property burgled. If not even Myleene Klass can resort to waving a knife at intruders— not to mean any grievous bodily harm, but to scare them off — is there nothing we can do but escape to our makeshift panic rooms and hope that the police arrives before we become another tragic statistic? Will we have to fear getting sued by a balaclava-clad trespasser who just happened to break his leg while trying to relieve us of our television?
As a newfangled proclivity toward xenophobia tides upon the average British voter and more and more of the white middle-class jump onto the BNP bandwagon, the Government will have to take a long, hard look into their law books, ask themselves what they are doing wrong and smother the increasing crime rates by the neck. Otherwise, Mr Brown, you might as well start cleaning out your office. You won’t be staying for any longer.
I love my laptop, but I wouldn’t kill for it
I find Cameron’s recent pledge to consider sentencing only those who use “grossly disproportionate” violence rather than anything above “reasonable” force hard to believe, but for different reasons. Such a change in the law would be simply illogical, and I think Cameron knows this. The Crown Prosecution Service already uses its discretion not to prosecute burglary victims who have used force, when they believe a jury would find the force to have been reasonable. The problem with arguments for ‘more rights to the home owner’ is that they tend to consider extreme, often exceptional cases as the norm.
As Judge Reddihough stated after Munir Hussain’s first trial; “If persons were permitted to take the law into their own hands… rather than letting the criminal justice system take its course, then the rule of law and our system of criminal justice, which are hallmarks of a civilised society, would collapse.”
Upon appeal, the leading defence lawyer stated, “Hussain accepted that he had not used reasonable force and did not appeal against that… The court of appeal relied upon his impeccable character and the fact it was a provoked unplanned attack.” Hussain himself then stated to the press, “Judge Reddihough was extremely fair… I can’t criticise the judge so I can’t criticise the justice system.” It does seem strange that, in the face of Hussain’s contrition, so many people are still campaigning for all intruders to be bludgeoned with cricket bats.
It is decidedly ironic that the attacker, Walid Salem, was so severely beaten that he sustained brain damage, and was thus unable to plead. Subsequently he received an absolute discharge. Had he been deemed mentally fit he undoubtedly would have received a harsher sentence.
Tony Martin, the oft-cited example of an Englishman defending his ‘castle’ in the way he judged best, was not just a helpless civilian defending himself. As a farmer, he had held a shotgun licence, but had it revoked in 1994 after shooting an intruder’s car (Martin claimed the intruder had been stealing apples). He had also been involved in two previous firearm incidents. He was been judged legally unfit to own a weapon, and yet continued to do so.
Fred Barras was shot in the back as he attempted to flee; yes, Martin would have been angry and scared by the intruders, but should he have shot them when they were already running away? His sentence was reduced on appeal from life for murder, to 5 years for manslaughter. But importantly, this reduction was on the grounds of diminished responsibility, as he suffers from a paranoid personality disorder.
Since his release, Martin has sold his story to the Daily Mirror for £125,000; not a bad sum for killing a 16-year-old. He has also acted as a spokesman for UKIP and the BNP. The BNP are significant lobbyists for the ‘Tony Martin Law’. I can’t see them supporting Munir Hussain in quite the same manner, for some reason. So all in all, the picture painted of Martin is that he is a trigger-happy, mentally unstable, profiteering racist. Forgive me for not supporting a law in his name.
A common misconception is that injured burglars are now making a living out of suing their intended victims. It is indeed true that there have been a number of cases in which burglars have attempted to sue homeowners. Brendan Fearon brought a case against Martin for the injuries he sustained after the shooting; however, the case was dropped before it even got to court. While there are many hoax claims floating about, I have failed to find any verifiable evidence of a burglar successfully suing a property owner, although there are a few burglars that have attempted it and failed.
And of course, Myleene Klass. The brave mum who scared intruders from her garden with a kitchen knife, only to be reprimanded by local police, and apparently told that “you are not allowed to protect yourself” and that “the law did not allow her to defend herself in her own home”. When turned upon by a seething press, the bemused Hertfordshire police pointed out that no reference was made in the incident report to use of a weapon, and that the law allows householders to defend themselves, adding that “words of advice were given in relation to ensuring suspicious behaviour is reported immediately”.
Why were words of advice on swift reporting needed? Because it was not Klass who first reported the incident, but her publicist, whom apparently she had been on the phone to while waving a knife at the errant teenagers. It seems that the Sun was then notified by Klass’ publicist. Despite the police’s continued insistence that this ‘warning’ had definitely not been issued, Klass then went on to sell her story to ‘Hello!’ magazine. You may judge yourself the significance of the fact that the article ended with “Popstar to Operastar is on ITV1 on Fridays at 9pm”.
As to the comment that USA has a lower burglary rate, which should justify homeowners in the UK owning guns: this hardly outweighs the vastly higher murder rate which is unavoidably a result of legal firearms. For all the NRA assures us that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, you’ve got to admit that an easily accessible gun makes the whole killing process a lot simpler and faster. Even if one was to make the illogical assumption that the high murder rate is entirely due to vigilante homeowners shooting trespassers on sight, it hardly improves the situation. Even Texas doesn’t have the death penalty for burglary. Why should a homeowner be allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner?
There is a wide range of issues that rise from these cases. Salem, Hussain’s attacker, had served time and had over 50 previous criminal convictions; clearly, his time in prison summarily failed to rehabilitate him. Many have pointed out that in Martin’s case, increased police involvement after earlier burglaries of his property could have avoided the situation. I’m not saying there are no problems in our justice system. I just think letting people take ‘justice’ into their own hands is not the way to deal with it.