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If you have ever been confronted by police for street preaching, you know it can be a very intimidating experience. Police often insist you are not allowed to street preach and often threaten you with arrest if you don’t move on. Equally as intimidating is trying to understand the law. Where do you find out what the law is? How do you understand legal language and terminology? These are the kinds of questions I struggled with when I began street preaching in Australia many years before I moved to the UK. These questions resulted in numerous arrests, court battles and eventually I was arguing in Australia’s highest court, namely the High Court in Camberra. I want to use my experience to help you understand the law here in England and Wales. Below is an extract from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. This act is still in force and governs the police powers of arrest in England and Wales. Read through the extract and then read my comments to get a proper understanding of the legislation and how it should be interpreted. If you can read the bible and understand theology then you can read and understand law. There are some differences in the rules of interpretation but those differences won’t be relevant at this stage of understanding the law.

(1) A constable may arrest without a warrant—

     (a) anyone who is about to commit an offence;

     (b) anyone who is in the act of committing an offence;

     (c) anyone whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be about to commit an offence;

     (d) anyone whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be committing an offence.

(2) If a constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence has been committed, he may arrest without a warrant anyone whom he has reasonable grounds to suspect of being guilty of it.

(3) If an offence has been committed, a constable may arrest without a warrant—

     (a) anyone who is guilty of the offence;

 (b) anyone whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be guilty of it.

Basically, sections (1), (2), and (3) of the legislation above say that police are empowered to arrest you if they suspect you have, are, or are going to commit an offence. This applies to any offence. However, this is not the end of the legislation and as we will see, section (4) shackles those powers of arrest and only permits police to use those powers if it is necessary for the reasons specified in section (5). 

(4) But the power of summary arrest conferred by subsection (1), (2) or (3) is exercisable only if the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that for any     of the reasons mentioned in subsection (5) it is necessary to arrest the person in question.

This is a significant piece of legislation. In Australia, where I come from, this kind of provision does not exist and police have wide powers for arrest. Section (4) is a piece of legislation every street preacher in England and Wales should praise God for. Simply put, section (4) makes it unlawful for a police officer to arrest you unless it is necessary to do so for one or more of the reasons listed in section (5). Let’s look at those reasons carefully.  

(5) The reasons are—

     (a) to enable the name of the person in question to be ascertained (in the case where the constable does not know, and cannot readily ascertain, the person’s name, or has reasonable grounds for doubting whether a name given by the person as his name is his real name);

     (b) correspondingly as regards the person’s address;

These two are easy ones for us to knock out. Just carry ID and proof of address with you when you go out preaching and show it to a police constable if they request it. There is no need to be afraid here because you know that you have the right to street preach. The government already knows where you live because the council requires you to register who lives in your home and the police are paid for by the council. So just give them your name and address, you have nothing to hide.

   (c) to prevent the person in question—

          (i) causing physical injury to himself or any other person; (ii) suffering physical injury;

          (iii) causing loss of or damage to property;

Christians shouldn’t need to worry about the first and third parts of this section because we don’t seek to intentionally hurt ourselves or anyone else and we don’t seek to damage personal or public property. So that rules out the first and third parts of this sub-section. The second part is a potential problem for street preachers. There are times when people do try to attack street preachers. If police are present and there is good reason for them to believe someone is going to injure you then they can arrest you. However, it could be argued this would apply more to an uncontrollable mob trying to hurt you rather than an individual. If there was just a few individuals the police could arrest them instead, especially if your not doing anything that would incite a reasonable man to violence. So this is something you should be aware of when you are speaking to police on the streets.

(iv) committing an offence against public decency (subject to subsection (6));

Again, this section could not be used against a genuine Christian out in the streets preaching the gospel.

(v) causing an unlawful obstruction of the highway;

I’m sure a police officer would be tempted to use this section, however, if people can walk around you and you are not obstructing cars or pedestrians then this section will not be an obstacle for you.

(d) to protect a child or other vulnerable person from the person in question;

This section has no relevance for street preachers either. 

(e) to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question;

This section is a potential problem but only if you are being beligerant to police. Sometimes we can become defensive and dispute with police. This might give the police and excuse to say they couldn’t investigate the offense in the street so they  arrested you for questioning. It’s an extreme case but if you are patient with police, record the conversation and answer their questions then you shouldn’t have any issues with this provision. A good idea is to repeatedly tell the police officer that you are more then willing to answer his questions and assist him in his investigation.

(f) to prevent any prosecution for the offence from being hindered by the disappearance of the person in question

This also is not a provision that street preachers should worry about. It’s really more to do with people who have a habit of disappearing and not being contactable at their address. Illegal refugees might be a good example or perhaps people living on the streets. Certainly not a law abiding street preacher who provides his name and address along with proof of address and ID.

I think that at this stage you realise that the police powers of arrest are limited in scope and really they are intended to protect the public from violence and indecency and to assist police in their investigation of offences and, if required, to issue you with a summons to attend court. Once this is properly understood you can shape your behaviour in such a way that the police can never lawfully arrest you. But sometime police might arrest you anyway. To learn how to respond in that situation and to get my personal tips and trick stay tuned for more of my blogs on street preaching and the law. If you want to look at the legislation on the government website click here, and if you want a summary on the government website then click here.