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The accidental criminal

November 18, 2013

It was as I was staring at myself in the police station’s CCTV screen that I realised the extent to which I felt like a common criminal. In that tiny camera screen I saw a woman in a hoodie, holding a piece of paper, looking pissed off. I saw myself as the PC behind the desk saw me – one of thousands of people every year caught doing something wrong, and paying the price.

In my case the price was a hefty £300 fine and a wincing six points on my driver’s licence. To me, a woman who doesn’t even throw her chewing gum on the ground for fear of being considered littering, this was a hard pill to swallow.

A little background. My husband and I bought a new (to us) car a couple of months ago, swapped our insurance, and thought no more of it. It seems our insurance lapsed, and for a month we drove around illegally, having no idea that we were doing so. Today, on our way home from a long weekend in Norfolk, a police car blipped his siren and pulled us over. Evidently having a guilty conscience, I puzzled briefly over the things I may have been doing wrong. I was stunned when he informed us that his clever computer had told him we were driving uninsured. A phone call confirmed this to be the case, and moments later I was relinquishing my driver’s licence, filling in a lengthy form, and mentally rehearsing the earful I was going to give Ben when it could be proved it was all his fault.

Luckily for us, the insurance company agreed to renew our policy on the spot, which meant we wouldn’t have to have the car impounded. (This was actually luckier for the police – we had a lot of dirty washing in that car, and half of Wells beach.)

Unluckily for us, we were guilty as charged and now had to face the consequences.  Later that afternoon I would be £300 poorer and six penalty points richer, and feeling like I would be asked for fingerprints and some sort of sample.

The policeman himself was very nice, explaining exactly what we had to do. Of course I didn’t hear a word, and when I dutifully arrived at the police station of my choosing later that day (I am a law-abiding citizen!) I realised I had not brought the requisite documents.

The female police officer behind the counter looked me up and down, the way she must have done hundreds before me, and told me she could either rip up the form she had so painstakingly been filling in, until I came back with a valid insurance document, or I could pay a fine for failure to produce the correct documentation.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a number of different emotions – aggrieved, embarrassed, foolish, poor. Now I got angry. I had seven days to roll up to my local police station with my policy document. I had arrived seven hours after the initial notice had been given to me, and was being threatened with another fine. But because I am a law-abiding citizen, I meekly apologised, asked her to destroy the form, and said I would return.

Two hours later and I’m looking at the video surveillance monitor, and handing over my licence for a third time. A different Police Officer now decides it’s time to ensure I fully get the message – that I’m extremely fortunate my car wasn’t taken off me, that he hopes I’ve fully learnt my lesson, and that I had better pay my fine within the allotted time, or I would be faced with further penalties. Taking into account the warning I had read upon parking my car (thankfully, still my car) at the Council offices that if I did not return within 30 minutes, they would be giving it away in the Christmas raffle, this was the third threat of a fine I had been offered within a single afternoon.

What was going on here?

I know there are a million uninsured drivers on Britain’s roads today. I understand they cost the taxpayer a fortune and are a menace to society. I fully get the fact we were in the wrong – it’s our responsibility to tax, insure and service our car, and a missed reminder is no excuse. It’s a fair cop. I’ll pay the money, take the points, and sulk for a few miles, and then feel grateful that we didn’t find out about our error having just had an accident.

What I object to is being made to feel like a criminal for what was a genuine and honest mistake. Lectures and threats of fines, being told repeatedly the consequences of our insurance company not being so kind as to accept our money; it seemed every single person involved in this long drawn-out transaction of guilt was hell-bent on reminding me what a terrible human being I was. Of course, I’m sure they see examples of people taking the piss every day, getting away with driving a car without insurance for years, and not giving a monkeys when they’re caught. A £300 fine isn’t a bad premium for years of insurance-free motoring.

But that’s not me, and these cold, uncompassionate form-fillers have made me realise that the average British citizen is only one hazy attention-span (maybe I received my monthly copy of Delicious in the same post as the insurance renewal) away from the icy stares and well-practised speeches of self-righteous and disassociated policy and procedure. Living in a culture of paranoia and fear of fines doesn’t help anybody. Being made to feel like a criminal is greater punishment than any fine or points on a licence. And the CCTV camera really showed up my grey hairs.

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One Comment
  1. Diane Halstead permalink

    Oh Alex, just love reading your blogs, and now I feel guilty as you had such a crap time!! I, too, shudder at the thought of being caught being outside the law, and I married a policeman! I got caught on the M11 several years ago now, the occasion still causes me nightmares, I was taking my son to Stansted for a really early flight, then got caught in a major jam on my way back. My car was at a standstill, and I was using my phone on speaker phone in my lap, when I noticed I was beckoned from the outside lane across onto the hard shoulder by a very angry policewoman. I thought I was “hands-free” but SHE didn’t agree, she said I was texting, which wasn’t true, but she took one look at my hoodie and yellow Mini with white stripes, and put my “type” in the guilty box, bless her. For all the above reasons, I share your pain xxx

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