Home / Insights / Is It OK To Swear At The Police?

Is It OK To Swear At The Police?

Many of the national newspapers are today carrying the story of the case of Harvey v Director of Public Prosecutions. This case involved overturning the conviction of a young man who repeatedly used the F word in front of two police officers who were searching him.

The case has been widely interpreted as saying that it is acceptable to use foul language at the police and has been widely condemned as a further sign of the legal system being soft on anti social behaviour.

So is it now OK to swear at the police? What does the law say about the language that we hear more regularly on our streets?

In fact, all this case has done is clarify Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. There is no specific offence of swearing at a police officer, and in fact it is not a specific crime of swearing in public, only of causing “harassment alarm or distress” under the Act mentioned above. This requires some evidence of an individual being, or being likely to be, offended by the language used.

In the Harvey case, the defendant was stopped in a group in the public area of a block of flats. The police wished to search him for drugs and he responded:

“F*** this, I haven’t been smoking anything.”

He was warned as to his behaviour and threatened with an arrest. Following the search which was negative he said “I told you wouldn’t find f*** all.”

He was further warned, and in response to a question to give his full name he replied:

“I have already f****** told you”

He was then arrested and the Magistrates Court found him Guilty of causing harassment alarm or distress. It was this conviction that has been overturned, but sadly for the media, not because the Judge thinks it is OK to abuse the police. This case turned on the fact that the Prosecution failed to provide any evidence that the police were offended by a word that, whether we like it or not, is commonplace. They were not used as specific insults to the officers, just as the words themselves. Because of this the Court could not infer that as “robust” police officers, probably used to that sort of language, that any “harassment, alarm or distress” was caused.

If the police had stated they were particularly offended by that word in the context it was used, or if there had been any evidence that other members of the public were present (other than the defendants’ friends, who gave every indication they were not offended) then the case might have been decided differently.

Cases like this make good headlines, and suit the agenda of some of our newspapers who as we know, are perfectly entitled to sit in judgment on public morality given their own recent conduct(!)

But perhaps all that has happened here is that the court have recognised that this is a word now part of everyday language for some, not illegal to use, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, has refused to accept simply using it should be a crime.

Those same courts are often criticized for not moving with the times and not living in the real world, so perhaps we should not be so quick to criticise them when they do. There is an interesting and separate debate to be had about whether words themselves should be illegal, but that debate is for the politicians who draft our laws, not the courts that interpret them

This article was produced on the 21st November 2011 by our Crime & Business Defence team for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.