Friday, 6 March 2009

The Poisonous Root...

OK. OK. Just quieten down at the back. Stop sniggering.

Yesterday's Daily Mail reported that:

"A couple caught simulating sex on CCTV to torment their neighbours were handed two-year restraining orders today".

They don't exactly sound like the sort of neighbours I would like to have. Noisy. Rude. And eventually convicted of causing harassment. Which is where the cctv came in.

The story implies that following some initial bad behaviour, the police suggested that the unfortunate neighbours use cctv to obtain evidence of this pair's nasty behaviour. Fair enough, you might say. Except that training the cctv INTO this couple's garden is itself quite possibly unlawful.

But no matter. For, as Deputy District Judge Alan Fowler is quoted as saying, the neighbours were entitled to breach this couple's privacy "because they were detecting a crime".

Now I am always slightly wary of accepting secondhand reports of what judges are supposed to have said. A comparison between court reports and newspaper versions can on occasion be quite enlightening.

But this has the whiff of modern England about it. We have long since ceased to be a nation in which respect for the Law counted for much. Certainly not if our Home Secretary's pic'n'mix attitude to legality is anything to go by.

We have instead adopted a flexible, graded system. It is OK to break a given law, provided that the aim of your action is to catch someone breaking a more sensational law. In this context, rights to privacy can go hang.

And if, perchance, you are some sort of sex offender, the tariff ratchets swiftly upwards: anyone for a little vigilante violence? Its OK - because the "pervert" deserves it.

This is a far cry from the US approach to law-enforcement in which there is still some lingering respect for the doctrine of "fruit of the poison tree". This states, pretty uncompromisingly, that where the source of a particular piece of evidence is tainted (by illegality) ALL subsequent findings resulting from that evidence are to be ignored.

Its harsh: it gives rise to accusations that the law favours the criminal. But it is also just: an absolute rein on police fishing expeditions.

Not, though, in the UK. The oddest thing about this case is that the pi├Ęce de resistance - the couple simulating sex on camera - only became a crime by virtue of the presence of the camera in the first place. They knew they were being filmed. Stupidly, they put on a performance for the lens.

Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely that their neighbours would have ever seen or been disturbed by this particular bit of faked rumpy-pumpy.

The number of circles in that argument are starting to make my head ache. Entrapment, anyone?

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