Murray Wardrop | The Telegraph (UK) | 21 November 2011
Swearing at police is not a crime because officers hear foul language “too frequently” to be offended, a judge has ruled.
The decision by the Court of Appeal to overturn the public order conviction of a young suspect who repeatedly said the "F" word while being searched for drugs was last night condemned as "unacceptable".
Policing unions said the ruling would undermine respect for officers.
Overturning Denzel Cassius Harvey's conviction, Mr Justice Bean said officers were so regularly on the receiving end of the "rather commonplace" expletive that it was unlikely to cause them "harassment, alarm or distress".
Mr Harvey appealed against his conviction after he was fined £50 for bombarding police with foul language when they attempted to search him for drugs.
The 20-year-old objected to officers searching him for cannabis in Hackney, east London, and unleashed a tirade of verbal abuse, saying: “---- this man. I ain't been smoking nothing.”
When the search revealed no drugs, he continued: "Told you, you wouldn't find ---- all.”
Asked whether he had a middle name, he replied: "No, I've already ------- told you so.”
Magistrates at Thames Youth Court found him guilty in March last year after concluding Mr Harvey's expletives were uttered in a public area while a group of teenage bystanders gathered around.
"There were people around who don't need to hear frightening and abusive words issuing from young men," the magistrates said.
However, bringing his appeal, Mr Harvey challenged his conviction claiming that no one within earshot – let alone two hardened police officers – would have been alarmed, distressed or harassed by his swearing.
Allowing the appeal, Mr Justice Bean said the only people nearby were the police officers and the group of youths – many of whom may have been "sympathetic" with Mr Harvey.
The expletives he used were heard "all too frequently" by police officers on duty, said the judge, and so were unlikely to have greatly disturbed them.
As for those watching the incident, the judge said it was "quite impossible to infer that the group of young people who were in the vicinity were likely to have experienced alarm or distress at hearing these rather commonplace swear words used".
Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: “If judges are going to say you can swear at police then everyone is going to start doing it.
“I’m not saying that police officers are going to go and hide in the corner and cry if someone tells them to F off, but verbal abuse is not acceptable and this is the wrong message to be sending out.”
The ruling comes after police chiefs were accused earlier this year of surrendering to foul-mouthed louts by banning officers from arresting yobs who taunt them with swear words and offensive language.
Guidance issued by the Metropolitan Police – Britain’s largest constabulary with more than 32,000 officers – told front-line police not to act because the courts will not believe they have been upset by the abuse.
The directive states: “The courts do not accept that police officers are caused harassment, alarm or distress by words such as ----, ----, -------, or ------.”