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Corona Diaries: loitering with intent

April 3, 2020

Loiter is a glorious English word. Much better than hang around or wander about aimlessly. One word says it. But what, in the context of a coronavirus lockdown, does it mean? If I interrupt my daily stroll to enjoy admire the view, or stand in front of a shop window to admire the fancy chocolate sculptures on display but not on sale, am I loitering?

Dawdle means much the same thing, but has an innocent connotation. Lurk is not so innocent. But loiterers are usually up to no good. Hence the term loitering with intent. But with intent to do what?

For this reason, I’m curious about the case of Marie Dinou, who was the first person in Britain to be fined under the Coronavirus Act. According to the Times, she was found “loitering between platforms” at Newcastle Central railway station.

As the deputy police constable of the railway police says, officers were dealing with someone who was behaving suspiciously, and railway staff thought she didn’t have a ticket.

Although she was convicted and fined, the case has been quashed on the grounds that the wrong legislation was used.

The case raises many questions. What legislation makes it a criminal offence to hang around a railway station? If she was beyond the ticket barrier where was she – on the railway track? What made the staff think she didn’t have a ticket? Did they ask her, or did she just look like the kind of person who doesn’t buy tickets? And what does such a person look like?

As for the police, did the railway staff call them or did they approach her of their own accord?  According to other reports, Ms Dinou refused to speak to them. Did it occur to them that she might have been afraid, that she might have been depressed, that she might suffer from some condition that made her reluctant to speak to people, or even that she might have been planning to throw herself on the track? Or, more simply, that she was confused about which platform she needed.

And then the prosecution. How come nobody in the chain that led to the district judge figured out that they were using the wrong legislation? And anyway, is it against the law to loiter between platforms?

Perhaps there’s a new law that’s been passed behind our backs: the crime of “loitering with intent to do nothing”. If so, what of the legal principle of mens rea, which by one definition is “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused”? If Ms Dinou was refusing to speak to the police, how on earth were they able to divine her intention? Unless of course she was in the process of getting on to a train, in which case she was not loitering.

No doubt my lawyer friends will tell me I’m talking out of my arse, in which case they’re free to correct me.

For sure there must be more detail that has not been reported. And I have to say that the Times report was sketchy on the details. But if we have more tricky cases like that of Ms Dinou, I suspect that Rumpole of the Bailey will have to be dragged out of the clutches of She Who Must Be Obeyed back into the law courts.

From → Social, UK

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    This is what put me off camping.

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