British Leaders Taking Stab at Curbing Crime New Law Increases Police Powers, Targets Violent Videos, Squattings
1994, The Washington Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Responding to a public perception of a breakdown of law and order, Britain's government is dramatically reshaping Britain's criminal justice system.
Changes include curtailing some traditional rights, increasing police powers and imposing stricter penalties for a broad variety of major and minor offenses.
The changes are aimed at violent crime, violent videos, dance parties called "raves" and mass squattings on private property by groups calling themselves "New Age Travelers."
Examples include the right to refuse to answer questions when accused of a crime, the right to free assembly and restrictions on searches and seizures by police - all of which are affected by the government's new Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which became law last week after a year's struggle.
The most controversial provision of the new law makes it harder for people to remain silent when questioned by police. A person may still refuse to answer questions, but the new law allows judges and juries in some circumstances to take a defendant's silence into account when determining guilt or innocence.
Before the new law, officers instructed suspects, "You do not have to say anything unless you want to do so, but what you say may be given in evidence." Now, police will say: "You do not have to say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you later use in your defense, the court may decide that your failure to mention it now strengthens the case against you."
The law allows police greater freedom to stop and search vehicles and pedestrians; to arrest and disperse squatters, trespassers and "illegal campers"; and to prevent and break up raves - the often drug-laden dance parties that are gaining popularity.
The law increases government censorship of videos, and provides stiffer sentences - including incarceration in "secure training centers" - for juvenile offenders down to age 12.
In the United States, legislation such as the new law would be challenged as unconstitutional. However, Britain has no written constitution, only a body of legal precedent, stretching back to nearly a thousand years.
In fact, the principles at issue in the new law evolved slowly and painfully over the centuries with the shaping of English Common Law and were embodied in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Probably more than any other body of laws in the world, they have been much admired and often imitated throughout the world.
The new law, shepherded through the House of Commons by the government of Prime Minister John Major, was bitterly attacked by the opposition Labor Party. The House of Lords, not usually known as a hotbed of civil liberties protests, tried unsuccessfully to block some parts of the measure. Editorial writers have attacked the law, while activists have registered their disapproval with street demonstrations. …