Sticks and stones and breach of the peace

William Miller was enjoying an evening with some friends in Glasgow on 9th May 2008.  The members of the group were approached by police officers and asked for their details.  Miller objected to the approach and suggested – in Kelmanesque terms – that he hadn't done anything.

Police Constable Cattigan was as sensitive to Miller's language as Julia Neuberger had been to James Kelman's when How Late it was How Late became the only Scottish novel to win the Booker Prize.  He indicated in the subsequent court case that he had been "alarmed and distressed at the language".  HIs colleague, PC Foster was made of sterner stuff. 

"I wasn't alarmed or distressed but there were four females present"

Although the gallant PC Foster did note that they did not seem distressed by Miller's language.  However, despite this the officers believed that Miller had committed a breach of the peace and arrested him. 

The local Justice of the Peace found Miller guilty and rejected a no case to answer submission during which it was claimed that there was no corroboration for breach of the peace.

Miller appealed and the appeal was decided by the High Court on 13th January 2009 [2008HCJAC 4].  The High Court (comprising Lady Paton, Sheriff Principal Lockhary and Temporary Judge Nicholson) quashed the conviction noting initially that no evidence appeared to have been led to justify the original approach to Miller's group.  And on the matter of breach of the peace as a result of the language used the court held that – given the circumstances of the original police approach – no crime had been committed.

"[I]t appears to us that any reasonable person in the position of the appellant at the time might well have taken umbrage when two police officers, in the absence of any explanation, suddenly started to demand particulars from him and his companions. The appellant's immediate response was no doubt expressed somewhat coarsely, but the words which were used cannot have been of a kind which the police officers had never heard before; and, simply as a matter of common sense, they cannot, in the circumstances, be regarded as amounting to a breach of the peace. On the contrary, they can properly be regarded as a mild, albeit rudely expressed, protest at what appeared to be wholly unjustified harassment on the part of the police officers." (para [14])