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A man wrongfully arrested whilst shopping in Waitrose has potential case against the police or the supermarket

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article about a man who was wrongfully arrested whilst shopping in Waitrose in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. A legal commentator quoted in the piece suggested the man had little possibility of legal redress but Cormac McDonough argues, he could have potentially brought a claim,

Mr Christopher Seddon had been collecting some groceries for his elderly mother, when he was incorrectly identified by a security guard as being the man responsible for the theft of £102 of meat a couple of weeks prior. The police were called and he was arrested and handcuffed in front of other shoppers. He was taken to Aylesbury Police Station where he was detained for over six hours and questioned, before being charged with a theft offence. He spent the next three months preparing for his trial. He spent £9,600 on legal advice and expert evidence from a CCTV analyst and a mobile phone expert (the former to prove that he was not the person captured on CCTV stealing the meat and the latter to prove that he was at his home address in North London on the day of the alleged theft). Eventually, on the eve of trial the Crown Prosecution Service discontinued the prosecution on account of evidential deficiencies. He asked Waitrose to pay his legal fees and at first they offered him the paltry sum of £500 in compensation. It was only after the Guardian article sparked off a social media campaign that Waitrose relented and agreed to pay his legal fees.

Whilst this may seem like a highly unusual and unfortunate case, regrettably it is quite common. At Hodge Jones & Allen, we have acted for many clients who have experienced ordeals similar to, or worse than that of Mr Seddon. What Mr Seddon’s case demonstrates is that such an experience can happen to anybody, irrespective of background or standing in society, and it is important that the public are fully aware of the options available to them should they be unlucky enough to find themselves in his position.

The Guardian article contained advice from a barrister which unfortunately is rather misleading and does not accurately reflect the relevant law. Whilst no claim for compensation resulting from an arrest and/or prosecution is easy, there is greater potential for an action against the police, and possibly Waitrose, than is suggested by the barrister in the article.

Police are bound by the following laws that are relevant in this case:

False Imprisonment

In accordance with s.24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, before a decision is taken on whether to arrest somebody, the following criteria must be satisfied:

  1. The arresting officer must reasonably suspect that an offence has taken place, and that the person they are arresting has committed that offence – the ‘Reasonable Suspicion’ test; and
  2. The arrest must be necessary in the circumstances – the ‘Necessity’ test.

The Reasonable Suspicion test requires that the arresting officer’s suspicion be both subjectively and objectively reasonable i.e. firstly that the officer honestly suspects that the person has committed the offence, and secondly that another reasonable person who was in possession of the same facts or evidence would probably form the same suspicion as the officer. If the suspicion is not reasonable then the arrest is not lawful.

The Necessity test, meanwhile, requires that the police only arrest people when it is necessary, for one of a finite list of reasons set out in the legislation. The most common justification for arrest used by the police is ‘to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence’, which covers most arrest situations where a person needs to be questioned to gather evidence, however even in such circumstance the police are required to consider alternatives to arrest, such as a voluntary attendance at the police station, and failure to do this may render the arrest unlawful.

If it is considered that the Reasonable Suspicion or the Necessity tests have not been satisfied, then a claim can potentially be brought against the police for false imprisonment. In such an action the burden is on the police to justify their decision to arrest and detain, and if they fail to do this the courts can award monetary compensation to the victim. An overview of the case law concerning monetary compensation is set out below.

In Mr Seddon’s case, the Reasonable Suspicion test is likely to be more relevant than the Necessity test. The key issue in his case would be whether the evidence provided by the security guard was compelling enough to allow the arresting officer to form a reasonable suspicion that Mr Seddon has stolen the meat. It is unlikely to be enough for the officer to say that he suspected Mr Seddon simply because the security guard made the report (as is suggested by the barrister in the Guardian article), rather, the officer would need to explain how this report and any other relevant factors caused him to form his suspicion, and whether he gave consideration to other intelligence or evidence that might have been available at the time of the arrest. Contemporaneous evidence such as the arresting officer’s incident notebook would be important in establishing what was in the officer’s mind at the time of the arrest, and would have a significant bearing on Mr Seddon’s prospects of success.

Malicious Prosecution

In a situation where somebody has been prosecuted, has suffered loss as a result of the prosecution (financial or otherwise) and the prosecution ends in their favour (such as the prosecution being discontinued as in Mr Seddon’s case, or else the person being found not guilty at trial) then there is the potential to bring a claim for Malicious Prosecution. To succeed in a claim the person must be able to show that the prosecution was brought without ‘reasonable and probable cause’ i.e. either that the person bringing the prosecution did not genuinely believe that the prosecuted person was guilty of the offence, or else that objectively speaking, the evidence did not support the prosecution being brought in the first place. A further requirement is that the prosecution was brought ‘maliciously’ i.e. that the prosecution has been brought for some other reason than a genuine desire to bring the person to justice.

The ‘malice’ requirement is usually the biggest hurdle in bringing claims of this type. Police investigations can be inadequate and mistakes will sometimes be made in prosecutions, however it is not possible to sue the police in negligence on account of incompetence – there needs to be at least a suggestion or malicious intent. Malice can, in theory, be inferred by an absence of reasonable and probable cause to bring a prosecution, however a claim will be greatly strengthened if there is evidence that the person bringing the prosecution had an ulterior motive.

It is important to note that claims for malicious prosecution are not restricted to the police, but can be brought against any person who initiates a prosecution. This may be of particular relevance to Mr Seddon, as it seems that the Waitrose security guard was instrumental in the prosecution being brought. Whilst there is probably no point in bringing a claim against the security guard himself (as he is unlikely to have the financial means to pay damages and legal costs) if he was acting in the course of his employment by Waitrose then they could, under limited circumstances, be vicariously liable for the security guard’s actions and be sued in his place. Mr Seddon would face the same obstacle of proving malice against the security guard, however the prospects of being successful might be greater than in a claim against the police given that the security guard provided evidence which turned out to be misleading, and which probably had a significant bearing on the decision to prosecute Mr Seddon.

It is not possible to assess the merits of Mr Seddon’s case without first being privy to the evidence, however there certainly appears to be potential for him to bring an action against the police or Waitrose. The same applies to anybody who is arrested or prosecuted for an offence that they did not commit. Whilst such claims are sometimes difficult, if successful, the damages could be substantial and therefore it is worth exploring the possibility of legal action with a specialist police action solicitor at the earliest opportunity.