November 27, 2018

A decision to chew on: Restraining officer acting in execution of duty when bitten

A police officer bitten by a suspected offender whilst helping his fellow officers in restraining him was held to be "acting in the execution of his duty" for the purposes of the Police Act 1996.

Whilst the initial actions of his colleagues in restraining the man were deemed to be unlawful, the officer was found to have an independent justification for his intervention in order to prevent those colleagues from being assaulted.

The High Court distinguished this matter from Cumberbatch v Crown Prosecution Service; Ali v Director of Public Prosecutions [2009] EWHC 3353 (Admin).

Background

The appellant, Corey Dixon, was cycling early on 26 March 2017 in Willesden, when seen by three police constables patrolling in an unmarked vehicle. 

The appellant fitted the description of the subject of an earlier intelligence briefing, who might be carrying drugs or weapons. PC Haroon (Haroon) got out of the vehicle and asked the appellant to stop. When the appellant did not stop, Haroon grabbed his arm. Haroon was not arresting the appellant or attempting to use powers of stop and search. The appellant resisted Haroon's attempts to restrain him. PC Bailey (Bailey) then also attempted to restrain the appellant. PC Dolling (Dolling) was observing and believed that the appellant might be reaching for a weapon, improvised or otherwise. As such, Dolling attempted to restrain the appellant's arm, at which point the appellant bit Dolling on the arm.

The appellant was charged with assaulting the constables in the execution of their duty under section 89(1) of the Police Act 1996.

He was acquitted of the offences against Haroon and Bailey but convicted of the offence with regards to Dolling. The appellant appealed. The appeal was dismissed. Mr Recorder Hall QC held that the appellant had bitten Dolling, and that he had not been acting in lawful self-defence in doing so.

The Court found that: "Although PC Haroon had not been acting lawfully when he attempted to detain the appellant, PC Dolling was nevertheless acting in the execution of his duty because he thought that the appellant might be reaching for a weapon in his waistband".

The appellant appealed to the High Court.

Outcome

The question for the High Court to decide was whether the Crown Court was entitled to find that Dolling was acting in the execution of his duty when the appellant bit him, in light of Haroon's purported restraint of the claimant constituting an unlawful use of force.

The Court considered two decided cases: Cumberbatch v Crown Prosecution Service; Ali v Director of Public Prosecutions [2009] EWHC 3353 (Admin).

  • In Cumberbatch the Court held that "where the arrest of an individual by a police officer was unlawful, other police officers who went to assist their colleague were not acting in the execution of their duty, so that an individual who used reasonable force to resist those police officers was not guilty of an offence under s.89(2)". However, in that case, the defendant, Miss Cumberbatch was reacting to the unlawful arrest of her father, and her response to this was held to be reasonable, i.e. she did not act unlawfully. Cumberbatch was capable of being distinguished. The High Court found that whilst Mr Dixon was entitled to use reasonable force to resist his unlawful detention and to protect his rightful liberty, he was not entitled to use unreasonable force. In fact, when the appellant bit Dolling he committed, himself, an assault, thus acting unlawfully.
  • The case of Ali could also be distinguished as the officers who went to assist with restraining Mr Ali had no grounds for believing that he was exercising, or was about to exercise more than reasonable force to resist being detained. Dolling, on the other hand, believed that the appellant was reaching for a weapon, or something to use as a weapon and therefore that he was using, or preparing to use more than reasonable force to resist detention.

For those reasons the court was "satisfied that on the facts found the Crown Court was entitled to conclude that PC Dolling was acting in the execution of his duty when he was bitten by the appellant", and hence the appeal was dismissed.

What can we learn?

  • The decision will provide further clarity in cases involving an initial unlawful use of force following which a situation escalates. It is important to note that, whilst the actions of the first officer in grabbing the appellant's arm and subsequent attempted restraint of him was unlawful in itself, this did not render the entire chain of actions that followed unlawful. A subject of unlawful force is only entitled to use reasonable force to defend himself; and the use, or attempted use, of unreasonable or excessive force (in this case reaching for a weapon) will give lawful grounds to an officer to use force to prevent what would otherwise amount to an assault.
  • The circumstances in which the officers found themselves and their assessment of those circumstances were highly relevant to the interpretation of their actions. The use of body cameras may become increasingly important in order to establish whether an offender resisting unlawful detention was, in fact, using more than reasonable force and/or the officers reasonably believed that they were doing so or about to do so.
  • In similar circumstances, officers and prosecutors should give thought to the alternative arrest or charge of common assault, which is not dependent upon the officer acting in the course of his duties and the question is simply one of whether the individual used excessive or unjustified force.