The Real World of the Rule of Law: Courts as Oppressive Organizations, Part Four: To Resist or Not to Resist the Police

Are You Arrested? The Ambiguity of Being Detained by the Police

When a police officer stops a citizen, an immigrant or a migrant worker, it may be understandably unclear whether s/he is arrested or not and what s/he can do or not do if stopped by the police. From McBarnet, page 36:

Arrest-that is, the detention of a person against his will-may be legally carried out only in relation to a specified offence. Otherwise attendance at the police station is purely voluntary. This is the spirit of the Judges’ Rules. Barry Cox ( I975) points out succinctly the gap between this ideology and practice:

Detention for questioning is therefore in theory impossible; in practice ‘helping the police with their inquiries’ is a daily event. (p. I72)

How is this possible? Partly because of the simple fact that if such arrest is impossible in theory it is nonetheless perfectly possible in law. Although they are much referred to as a symbol of legality, the Judges’ Rules are not law, only principles for administrative guidance. Authoritative law on arrest is rather different.

If a person is not arrested when stopped by the police, what can the person do? Can s/he just leave (apart from some exceptions–as when the police require a person to take a breathalyzer test)? Not really. They, of course, can try to leave, but the legal interpretation of such an act is rather tricky. From McBarnet, page 36:

For example, the voluntary nature of helping the police with their inquiries has been interpreted in law, to say the least, very widely. Consider the Scottish case of Swankie v. Milne in I973 which defines the current situation. This was deemed not only not to be an illegal arrest but not to be an arrest at all. The judges accepted that the police had stopped the accused in his car, taken his keys away, waited with him and would have prevented him from leaving if he had tried to. However, they concluded that the accused had remained voluntarily and had not therefore been arrested.

Furthermore, what if the police try to stop the person? What right does the person have in this case? Referring to the above case, From McBarnet comments, pages 36-37:

What their judgement would have been if he had tried to leave is unclear. But it is also an arrestable offence according to the 1964 Police Act to obstruct the police in the execution of their duty, and this has been interpreted as ‘the doing of any act which makes it more
difficult for the police to carry out their duty’ (Rice v. Connolly, I 966). What precisely that means remains an open question. Although Lord Justice Parker in the same case refuted the idea that refusing to answer questions, even allied with a generally obstructive and
sarcastic attitude, was not obstructing a policeman in his duty. Justice James made a point of noting that:

I would not go so far as to say there may not be circumstances in which the manner of a person together with his silence could amount to an obstruction within the section; whether it does remains to be decided in any case that happens hereafter, not in
this case, in which it has not been argued. (Rice v. Connolly, Ig66)

It becomes rather difficult to see how someone can avoid being arrested if the police have a mind to arrest him.

Doing anything that indicates resistance to the police can easily be interpreted as resistance of arrest–and guilt. From McBarnet, page 37:

Furthermore, refusing to co-operate is not a far cry from resistance, which is, of
course, an arrestable offence; nor is resistance far from another offence, assault.

Indeed, in court, resisting arrest tends to be presented by prosecutors as indicative of guilt and therefore a justification of the arrest on the first charge anyway. ‘Only the guilty take advantage of civil rights’ is the line taken.

A person stopped by the police, on the other hand, who does not resist arrest may be accused of being guilty for that very reason. From McBarnet, pages 37-38:

On the other hand, with the nice skill lawyers have of always holding the winning trick, failing to resist is also suspicious. Witness Case 8.

The prosecutor was suggesting that the accused must have been guilty or he would not have allowed himself to have been seized (uncharged) by two men (the police were in plain clothes) without resisting:

Prosecutor: You didn’t do anything?
Accused: I couldn’t.
Prosecutor: You didn’t say ‘What are you doing?’
Accused: No, it was all too quick.
Prosecutor: And no explanation was given at all?
Accused: No
Prosecutor: When did you gather they were policemen?
Accused: I asked them-they said they were taking me to the station.
Prosecutor: But why assume they were policemen? There are railway stations.

The same applies to friends who do not assist the accused. From McBarnet, page 37:

In his summing up the prosecutor considered it doubly suspicious that the accused’s companion had not fought off the two policemen if his friend was being innocently seized:

Prosecutor: According to his story, his companion made no protest while the accused was dragged out by two unknown men. This is quite incredible. He is clearly guilty of this charge.

The flip side of this catch-22 situation–damned if you do and damned if you don’t–is you may be accused of resisting arrest if you do aid someone detained by the police. From McBarnet, page 38:

The companion in question might, however, have been relieved that he had not intervened if he had heard the accused’s mother’s account of her night in jail charged with breach of the peace when she went to protest, or if he had witnessed Case 13:

Policeman: One youth ran towards us saying ‘What are you taking him in for? It’s a fucking liberty. He’s done fuck all!’ He was cautioned and charged with breach of the peace.

What if there is no ground for arrest, the police arrest the person and the person resists? The person can be charged and convicted of assault. From McBarnet, page 38:

In any case, the prosecutor’s argument was only about the credibility of the accused not the legality of the arrest. Indeed, in cases of resistance or assault, even if the arrest was unfounded and illegal it is still, in English law, ‘open to the jury to convict of common assault’ (Halsbury, 1g6g, vol. 25, p. 364) and the charge sticks even if the resister did not know the person seizing him was a policeman. In short, the law itself does not encourage standing on one’s right to freedom from arbitrary arrest.

The Social-Democratic Left and Criminal Law

What would the social-democratic or reformist-left say about this? They would likely repeat what the social democrat Herman Rosenfeld stated:

Shouldn’t that institution [the police] be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

Okay. How does Mr. Rosenfeld or other social democrats propose to do that? Frankly, I think that you should not hold your breath while waiting for a response. The article written by Mr. Rosenfeld from which this quote is drawn is dated May 4, 2020. I have searched on the Net to see if Mr. Rosenfeld has elaborated on this assertion since then; I have not been able to find anything at all written by him on the topic since his May 4 article.

This is just social-democratic rhetoric passing it off for something real; it is pretending to be something that it is not. It is fake social reform. Workers, citizen, immigrants and migrant workers hardly need such pretentious rhetoric. Mr. Rosenfeld has no real intention to lift a finger to formulate let alone implement a policy for police “reform.” I suspect that this applies to many other social-democratic or reformist arguments.

Indeed, when Mr. Rosenfeld, Jordan House and I were giving a course on union organizing and socialism for airport workers at Toronto Pearson airport, I mentioned that we workers at a brewery in Calgary had engaged in sabotage of the machines in order to have one foremen fired (he was pressing us constantly to produce more), I had the impression that Mr. Rosenfeld was uncomfortable in my stating this fact; he was probably afraid of challenging the beliefs of the workers. I could of course be wrong, but Mr. Rosenfeld’s lack of elaboration of how the police are to be transformed and reformed provides further evidence of my suspicion that he actually holds social-reformist views and that his socialist views take second place; this conclusion probably applies to many so-called socialists.

Furthermore, the title of his article from which the above quote is drawn expresses a hostility to the view that what is needed is the abolition of the police and not its reform:

Reform and transform: Police abolitionism and sloppy thinking

Such hostility to a politics of abolition by calling it “sloppy thinking” without engaging in any further inquiry also points to a social-reformist or social-democratic point of view.

Perhaps social democrats or social reformers can provide counterarguments to the above. I welcome such counterarguments–but I suspect that they will not provide any counterarguments.

If there are no counterarguments by the social-democratic or social-reformist left, does that not point to the need to abolish the police and the associated court system that is linked to it? Would not a people’s court and armed citizens be much more in the interests of workers than a separate police force and courts that engage, systematically, in oppressive measures against those who challenge social order? After all, as Mark Neocleous argues, the essential function of the police (and the courts by implication)–is to maintain social order of a society dominated by a class of employers–and not to administer social justice (see Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism).


Workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers who are stopped by the police, even if they have not broken the law, could easily be arrested for refusing to comply with police officers’ instructions. On the other hand, complying with police officers’ instruction could also be used in a court of law against them. Such is the illogic of a system of justice within a society dominated by a class of employers.

You would not know it from the rhetoric of the social-democratic or social-reformist left, though. They provide little or no research to educate workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers on the real nature of the work of police officer and the real law as expressed in courts of law. Rather, they paper over the real nature of such social institutions with their empty phrases of transforming such institutions “into a more humane, limited and less autonomous” form.

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