Can you be lawfully arrested on a charge of ‘making off without payment’ when you are in fact-
- Not making off, but remaining on the premises where payment is expected; AND
- Offering to pay your debt for goods/ services in full with legal tender?
The answer to that question is of course NO, but that didn’t stop Devon & Cornwall Police arresting my client Brett Chamberlain in exactly those circumstances…
On 27 July 2020 Brett filled up his car with £60 worth of diesel at a Tesco Petrol Station in Exeter, and offered payment by way of a £100 coin to the cashier.
A £100 coin is legal tender in accordance with the Coinage Act 1971.
The manager of the petrol station refused to accept payment in this form, despite the fact that there was no notice or advertisement on the fuel pumps warning potential customers that certain denominations of otherwise legal tender would not be accepted in payment of the goods being offered for sale i.e the petrol/ diesel fuel.
Indeed, Brett had previously received a letter from the Tesco Customer Engagement Centre (dated 16 January 2020) which confirmed that Tesco did accept payment in its petrol stations by means of ‘commemorative’ coins including the £100 denomination.
The manager of the petrol station refused to accept payment by way of Brett’s £100 coin, and instead called the Police. Sergeant Attwood of Devon and Cornwall Police attended at the scene and spoke to Brett, who was waiting patiently in his motor car by the fuel pump.
Brett had not attempted to ‘make off’ in any way, although he had offered to move his car to a different area of the forecourt so as not to block access to the fuel pump – but this had been refused by the Tesco manager.
Embedded below in this blog, are videos of Brett’s interactions with Sergeant Attwood.
As the videos show, Brett politely explained the situation to Sergeant Attwood, including showing the officer the £100 coin, and explaining the relevant stipulations of the Coinage Act 1971 (although Brett was under no obligation to explain the law to a Police Officer).
Sergeant Attwood accepted that the £100 coin was perfectly legal tender, but nevertheless threatened Brett with arrest for “bilking”, on the alleged grounds that it was the preference of the Tesco manager that Brett not pay his debt with the £100 coin.
Brett correctly asserted that he was not acting dishonestly; he had not attempted to drive off; he had waited for the officer to attend and had then engaged in a lengthy and civil discussion with him as to the issue.
Brett further correctly asserted that the officer should not be threatening arrest simply because of the Tesco manager’s ‘preference’ as to what type of cash payment he was willing to accept after the event of the fuel being pumped. As with all self-service petrol stations, the pumps are made available for prospective customers such as Brett to ‘help themselves’ to vehicle fuel, and the station owner, in this case Tesco, would only have been able to refuse payment in a given denomination of otherwise legal tender cash/coinage had they clearly advised the fact with signage upon their pumps in advance. In the absence of any such signage (and, indeed, given the actual written assurance that Brett had previously received from Tesco that such coinage was acceptable payment) Tesco were obliged to accept any legal tender in Sterling which was offered to them and could not ‘pick and choose’ the method of such payment after the fuel had been pumped into the car, and the transaction was therefore irreversible. The same situation would also apply in, say, a restaurant after a customer had eaten a meal – if he had not been given advance notice that there were types of statutorily legal tender which this particular business would not accept.
Nevertheless, Sergeant Attwood then placed Brett under arrest on suspicion of “making off without payment”, at which point the officer reached through the open driver’s door window of Brett’s vehicle (through which the two men had been talking) and without warning simultaneously took hold of Brett’s right arm – which act was in itself an assault and battery- and attempted to extract his keys from the ignition (although the engine of the car was already switched off).
Brett reasonably requested that the officer let go of him, and when this was done, peaceably exited his vehicle and complied with the officer’s instructions to accompany him to a nearby Police vehicle.
Brett was then required to get into the rear of a Police car and two different officers then transported him to Exeter Police station where he was detained in custody for over 4 hours.
During his time in custody, Brett was interviewed as to the alleged ‘offence’ and had his fingerprints, DNA, and photograph taken under duress. He was subsequently released “under investigation” with the Police retaining the £100 coin, despite there never being any suspicion that this was anything other than a wholly legitimate coin, properly issued by the Royal Mint and confirmed as legal tender by the Coinage Act.
Brett subsequently received a letter from Devon and Cornwall Police confirming that the alleged crime had now been filed as “undetected”, with an outcome of “not proceeded with”.
Heads & Tails
It was ridiculous that this chain of events had gone so far. As Brett cogently observed during his Police interview, he simply shouldn’t have had to explain the contents of the UK Coinage Act to the UK’s biggest retailer, nor law and legislation to a Police Officer – an agent of the Crown. He had been arrested, and was then investigated with a view to his being criminally prosecuted for the ‘offence’ of … attempting to use Royal Mint coinage?
Plainly and simply, the Officer was using his power of arrest to attempt to bully Brett into doing what the Tesco manager wanted, despite the wishes of that manager having no force in law.
This self-same officer then added insult to injury by repeatedly accusing Brett of being “dishonest” during his interview under caution – despite at no point being able to articulate what was dishonest about using an appropriate amount of legal tender to pay a legal debt. During the interview, it quickly became clear that the officer lacked any reasonable basis for arresting Brett, but appeared unable to back down from his self- appointed position as Tesco’s “Big Brother” despite the cogency, coherency and clarity of Brett’s argument.
In the aftermath of these wholly unjust events, Brett initially attempted to set the record straight by pursuing an official complaint with Devon & Cornwall Police, only to run up against the usual pro-Police bias of ‘local’ complaint investigations. In his case, Brett received a letter from Sergeant Balsdon of Exeter Police Station dated 16 December 2020, which was almost nakedly bristling with hostility – rather than offer any sort of apology, Sergeant Balsdon asserted that the “crime” had happened, and the only reason Brett was not being prosecuted was because the victim (that is Tesco PLC) had not provided any evidence. The Sergeant then asserted that “shops and businesses are not expected to accept comenberative (sic) coins as a method of payment and have every right to refuse”…which is both entirely correct and entirely irrelevant, because businesses cannot ring fence certain types of coinage as unacceptable once the transaction has irreversibly commenced – and would instead have to have given advance notice of their special terms as to payment e.g by posting clear signs on their fuel pumps. Of course here, the officer’s argument was all the more fallacious because Tesco had actually done the opposite – they had written to Brett and assured him they would accept commemorative coins of that denomination; and this very fact was known to the Police throughout the time of Brett’s detention and their subsequent ‘investigation.’
In effect, the Police letter was saying to Brett – ‘Thanks for your complaint – but in our view you are a criminal, and we’re just disappointed we can’t prove it.’ This letter was accompanied by a telephone call from another officer who stressed the view that Brett was dishonest, and just lucky that Tesco were not ‘pressing charges’– a call which Brett quite rightly found to oppressive and threatening. So much for a considerate or conciliatory response – though as long experience tells me, hardly surprising; this type of combativeness is ingrained in policing complaint culture.
Brett was therefore left with no remedy but a legal claim for compensation, and that was when he instructed myself in January 2021.
In the meantime, Brett had received another letter from Sergeant Balsdon insisting that “the crime was recorded accurately” and that “the crime remains”. Outrageously, Brett was now facing the prospect of being life-long smeared by association with an offence he could never have committed, as a result of the Police refusal to delete the arrest from his PNC record. And what exactly was this “crime” that the Police deemed should remain forever more on his record? Brett summed this up very well, when in a classic example of British irony he phrased it thus – “The crime of using Her Majesty’s legal tender coins at the country’s largest retailer, who had already agreed to accept them in writing…”
I am pleased to confirm that we have now successfully held Devon & Cornwall Police to account. Faced with the threat of legal action, the Force has not only agreed to pay Brett £5,000 damages (rather more than £100) for his wrongful arrest but also to offer a full apology – which in itself gives the lie to any suggestion that Brett’s initial complaint was handled fairly or impartially.
We can look at this case from the negative angle of what a shameful waste of public money it was by the Police to have both arrested Brett in the manner they did, and then failed to apologise when first given the opportunity to do so – and all for what? Pride in their own power it seems, and a willingness to side with the ‘big boys’ Tesco against the common man.
For that seems to me to be the real problem here – that Sergeant Attwood clearly felt that Tesco had to be in the right and that Brett must be dishonest – he just didn’t know why.
And when Brett then raised a wholly legitimate complaint, Sergeant Attwood’s colleagues clearly felt that their colleague must be right, and Brett must be a criminal – they just didn’t know why, either.
The role of the Police is to uphold the law, not to use it as a tool to bully or browbeat those who disagree with them, or with the corporate kings of the country…
But we can also look at the positive result: that Brett was able to take the Police to task and expose both their incompetence and abuse of power – to remind the Police, and us all, that their job is to uphold the letter of the law, not the hierarchies of society; not to have a default position of siding with commercial entities/ corporations against the private citizen; and not to let themselves be used as the fist of the big organisation that’s punching down.
After all, the Police swear an oath to well and truly serve the Queen whose head is on our coins, not to Tesco PLC, who simply bank so many of them…