Jun 062008

Kevin Underhill has a great blog, Lowering the Bar, that chronicles in a particularly witty fashion some of the absurdities that abound the legal world. I first thought of him and his blog when I encountered the headline on England’s The Guardian website, “Banger to rights: sausage exonerates woman.”

Because what could be sillier than a sausage?

But then I read the article.

Bellas was arrested in her car near her home on January 31 after officers spotted her with a kitchen knife. Bellas protested her innocence, telling police officers she needed the knife for her job on a fast food stall in Penrith’s market square.

But the local council was unable to confirm that she had a licence, and she was charged with having a knife in a public place without good reason. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ploughed on with the prosecution, appointing solicitors and gathering evidence from the police.

But Tim Evans, a barrister in the case, told Carlisle Crown Court yesterday a sausage had saved the day. Council records showed food inspectors had earlier seen Bellas “tinkering with a generator while handling a sausage”, Mr Evans said. This proved the defendant had a valid reason for carrying a knife in public: her occupation.

The prosecution then offered no evidence against her, resulting in her necessarily being found not guilty, and she was given £10 to cover her traveling expenses.

What a joke, right? The article, which was comprised of just a few more paragraphs than these practically guffaws all the way. Ha ha ha, saved by a sausage. Saved by a sausage, yes — but from a wrongful arrest and prosecution for the grievous “offense” of having possessed an ordinary household tool.

What’s funny about the story, and I mean “funny” in a perverse sense, is that no one involved seemed to see anything wrong with the whole affair. I don’t know if it’s the absurdity of the sausage that blinded everyone to the underlying nightmare of overzealous prosecution, or if in modern England this kind of railroading is so ordinary that everyone is too inured with it to be inclined to question its inherent injustice. The thought occurred to me, originally flippantly, that I’m sure it would make American advocates of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms absolutely apoplectic over something like this. But then I realized, they *should* be apoplectic. A prosecution over possession of a kitchen knife, that no amount of protests of innocence could avoid? *Everyone* should be apoplectic. The fact that a sausage saved the day does not mask the fact that it was a day — and a poor, innocent woman — that needed saving in the first place from a horrible abuse of state power.

Obviously I need to be wary of cultural relativism. I’m not English, nor schooled enough in its law and culture to quite justify being a backseat driver of its criminal justice system. England after all is currently experiencing a rash of knifings, and the daily headlines screaming out the latest knife-caused tragedy are probably making everyone more keen to prosecute those who would wield them criminally. Nonetheless, I do think this story stands for a troubling trend to criminalize ordinary and innocent behavior, a trend that doesn’t just defy American notions of liberty but also the same ones modern English society claims to share.

Of course, it’s a hard thing to strike a balance in, figuring out how much power a state should have over private affairs. Too much leads to unjust results, as does too little. Which this other “silly” sounding story exemplifies. I was watching an English-language broadcast of the Russia Today newscast and caught a “human interest” story about a family who came back from vacation to find everything they owned gone. Including their entire 19th century mansion in the city center of Yekaterinburg. It seems that while they were away a developer went ahead and demolished it. The family has now been reduced to living in tents and begging the police to help. The police, for their part, have offered to prosecute the developer. If the family can in fact prove that the house existed in the first place.

I wish I could find the video online, because what struck me most significantly about the story was the complete indifference everyone involved had to the plight of this poor family. Where was the outrage? The developer didn’t care, the police didn’t care, and even the reporters didn’t seem to care, as the story seemed to betray an undercurrent of amusement by the absurdity of a family coming home and not being able to find their house — as if they’d simply misplaced it. Meanwhile the fact that there appeared to be a complete absence of any law or legal construct that could help them remedy this appalling situation never really seemed to strike anyone as a problem.

Human beings can be very silly creatures, and even when they use law to either cause or resolve their disputes much silliness can still arise. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest we shouldn’t giggle when giggling is warranted, which of course it often is. But our desire to laugh at absurdity shouldn’t blind us to the underlying injustice that may be causing that absurdity in the first place. Because as both these stories demonstrate, what might at first seem silly in reality may really be no laughing matter at all.

 Posted by at 11:17 pm

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>