Prosecution for assaulting a police officer

What will happen if I obstruct or assault a police officer?

Assault is a criminal offence. Assaulting a police officer is deemed an ‘aggravated assault’ – and is treated more seriously by the courts.

Under section 89 of the Police Act 1996:

  • It is a criminal offence to assault a constable in the execution of his duty, or a person assisting a constable in the course of his duty.
  • It is an offence to resist or wilfully obstruct a constable in the execution of his duty.

What is meant by ‘in the execution of his duty’?

The key element to both offences is whether or not the police officer was executing his duties at the time of the alleged assault, and therefore acting lawfully at the time the alleged offence occurred. However, it will be important to establish whether or not the individual was acting in self-defence.

What is meant by a police officer’s ‘duty’?

This is not defined by statute, however, the courts will take into account what was necessary for the police to do to protect life and limb, to keep the peace, to prevent crime and to detect crime.

When is it typical for these offences to occur?

Wilful obstruction

At common law, a police officer is under a duty to keep the peace and prevent a breach of the peace. Wilful obstruction of a police officer is most likely to occur when the officer is exercising these common law powers. Wilful obstruction typically occurs during protests when police officers are attempting to prevent a breach of the peace, but protesters refuse to stop certain activities and obstruct police officers performing their duties.

The offence has three elements:

  1. Obstruction; for instance, making it more difficult for an officer to carry out his duty, or refusing to cooperate with a police officer’s questioning.
  2. The obstruction must be ‘wilful’ ie. deliberate or calculated.
  3. The police officer must have been acting in the course of his duty.

These elements are not defined by statute and it is for the courts to interpret their meaning.

Assaulting a police officer

Assaulting a police officer can happen at any time when a police officer comes into contact with the public and there is the potential for a police officer to be assaulted. This can often happen in demonstrations when they turn violent, or can happen when an officer is trying to arrest someone. Where, for example, someone resists arrests and punches the officer, this will be an assault.

To prove a charge of assaulting a police officer, the Crown must establish that an assault has taken place. The law states that an assault is committed when a person attacks another person by intentionally or recklessly causing another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force. Assault may also be a battery (when a person intentionally and recklessly applies unlawful force to another).

To satisfy both elements of the section 89 offence, it must also be established that the assault took place while the officer was exercising his duties.

What if the assault took place while the officer was not exercising his duties?

If a police officer is assaulted at a time when he was not exercising his lawful duties, the offender may still be charged with common assault – which carries a lesser sentence.

What is the potential sentence for these offences?

On conviction of assaulting a police officer contrary to section 89 of the Police Act 1996, the defendant faces a sentence of up to 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000.

On conviction of obstructing a police officer under section 89, the offender can be sentenced to up to 1 month in prison and/or a fine of £1000.

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Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.