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Artillery Row

Should booby-traps be legal?

When the state fails to protect us many want to act themselves

There’s nothing that stirs boyish excitement quite like pretending to be a spy. My father and I had a great time of it this weekend, as we hid cameras and microphones around his office. The devices are linked to a new app that’ll give him a notification every time someone enters. It also allows him to taunt his victims with an ominous, disembodied voice or activate a deafening siren. It responded delightfully well to a sound check: “Let the games begin.”

I’d like to reassure readers that my dad isn’t a serial killer. Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, there has been a spate of burglaries of commercial properties. The City of London saw a 110% year-on-year rise of burglary in March, and town centres across the country have reported similar trends. With workers locked safely at home, and the bobbies busy policing park benches, my father has been forced to take matters into his own hands.

Yet even as we tested our new toys something seemed amiss. 

Were we expected to talk the culprits round? Where were the trip wires? I’m old enough to realise that an anvil dropped from above does a bit more than leave a comical bump, but what about something more proportionate, like a large melon? 

Looking around me, I could picture the scene. Blinded by a paint grenade, one crook staggers backwards through the office door, loses his balance amongst a sudden cascade of marbles and tumbles down the staircase. His confused colleague pokes his head through the second-floor window and is dispatched by a swinging coconut. Disorientated by sudden strobe lighting and animal noises, the last man makes a break for the fire exit and collides head-first with a Perspex wall. 

After patiently hearing me out, dad dismissed the scheme on practical grounds. “Probably better to call the police”, he suggested. 

I was less convinced. My previous interactions with the police have been far from confidence-building exercises. When my brother was mugged at the end of our road, the cops dutifully turned up with a ‘wellbeing questionnaire’, but neglected to check the footage of a CCTV camera that had been pointing at the culprits (it deletes after 48 hours) or follow up on the fact that we knew who they were. When, as a teenager, I made the mistake of resisting a mugging, CID made a decent show of swanning into the hospital in Bogart-style trench coats, only to announce that they’d forgotten their swab kits – the one reason they’d been called. By the time they re-emerged, 2 hours later, the medics had cleared up the evidence.

From what I can gather from friends, my experiences aren’t untypical.  These are, of course, the same people that spent 4 years and £130,000 tracking the ‘Croydon cat killer’ – a mysterious man, supposedly driven to bludgeon and maul over 400 cats because, by the reckoning of detective sergeant Andy Collin “[he] can’t deal with a woman or women who are troubling him.” It later transpired that the ‘victims’ were traffic accidents that had been scavenged by foxes.

A popular social contract theory states that we trade in our right to protect ourselves, and the state offers us security

A police watchdog report earlier this year found that only 7.8% of reported crimes in England and Wales result in a prosecution and that the public was increasingly not bothering to report theft.  

Are these really the people we are going to rely on to catch the burglars in the act if our cameras picked them up, or hunt them down afterwards? 

A later Google revealed that booby traps are, sadly, very much not legal. In fact, the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 obliges you to protect trespassers on your land from foreseeable harm, meaning you could be sued if they accidentally injury themselves by, say, falling through a skylight if you had reasonable grounds to believe someone would attempt to walk on it. 

This probably seems fair to some. A popular social contract theory states that we trade in our right to protect ourselves, and in return the state offers us enhanced security. 

But what about when the state fails to uphold its side of the bargain? 

Until a few weeks ago this was an abstract question for most urban businesses, but it has often been less philosophical for the nation’s farmers. Britain’s countryside was hit by a £49.3 million crimewave in 2018 (the latest year for which figures are available), with a 25% increase in the theft of farming vehicles. The latest National Farmers Union report provides harrowing accounts of the depression and anxiety suffered by isolated farmers unable to defend their livelihoods from regular raids. 

Every night, farmers across the country turn off the lights knowing that the nearest policeman is over an hour away and that any harm that comes to intruders might get them sued. From their dens on surrounding hillsides, would-be brigands watch the lonely lights fade knowing the same thing. Both parties will have a court case in mind. 

In 1996, 76-year-old William Newbery was sleeping in his tool shed to deter thieves when two men in their early 20s tried to force their way in. Mr Newbery fired a warning shot and accidentally injured one of them. Denied his haul of freebies and peppered with shotgun pellets, the assailant decided to sue his would-be victim on the grounds that he’d neglected his duty of care to trespassers, and won. Newbery’s plea of self-defence was rejected on the grounds that the shotgun was “disproportionate” (presumably the pensioner owed the young men a fist-fight). 

Few people want a countryside littered with bear traps, snake pits and tweed-clad snipers, but are we really so attached to right of burglars to go about their work safely that we want their victims to guarantee it? Do we feel comfortable forcing the elderly and isolated to stand aside as culprits make off with their prized possessions? 

As urban businesses are now discovering, the police cannot be omnipresent and standing law is weighted heavily on the side of trespassers. Whether this engenders a rethinking of occupier’s liability law remains an open question. 

In the meantime, my scheme will be waiting on a shelf. 

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