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Criminal Defence Articles

What is the punishment for Assaulting a Police Officer in the UK?

Majad Habib - Criminal Defence Lawyers

Assaulting a police officer is a very serious crime, and if you or someone you care about is facing charges for assaulting a police officer you are understandably worried about what might happen next. You might be wondering what such a crime formally entails and what the punishment is if you’re convicted. In this article, we will outline everything you need to know about the offence of assaulting a police officer in the UK. We’ll explain the crime, what sentences are available, and some defences that – if successful – could help reduce your sentence or get the charge dropped altogether.

What is the crime of assaulting a police officer in the UK?

In the UK, the act of assaulting a police officer (or its longer formal name, committing an ‘assault on a police constable in execution of his duty’) is governed by the Section 89 of the Police Act 1996.

Under that legislation, it is a criminal offence both to:

  • assault a constable in the execution of his (or her or their) duty, or a person assisting a constable in the course of his (or her or their) duty, and to
  • resist or wilfully obstruct a constable in the execution of his (or her or their) duty.

It is also possible, and indeed likely, that any assault against a police officer will be charged under the broader rules on the offence of assault. The offence of assault has evolved significantly over time, partly through legislation and partly through the decisions of the courts, but is broadly governed by the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

There are three types of assault:

An assault on a police officer may fall under any of these three offences. The fact that the assault is against a police officer per se does not change the name of the crime, but does make it more serious (leading to the term ‘aggravated assault’ being used to describe assaults on the police and other emergency workers).

What constitutes common assault?

In the UK, common assault is  defined as using unlawful force against another person. Unlawful force can include pushing, shoving, slapping, punching and kicking. Common assault does not require any actual physical contact to be made between the assailant and the victim; for instance if someone threatens to hit another person, including a police officer, with their fist but does not actually make contact that could still constitute common assault.

What constitutes actual bodily harm?

Actual bodily harm (ABH) is defined as assaulting someone, so that they suffer some kind of physical injury. This can include bruising, cuts and grazes, swelling, minor burns or scalds and more serious injuries like broken bones or concussion. It’s important to note that the injury does not have to be permanent in order for it to constitute ABH.

What constitutes grievous bodily harm/wounding?

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) or wounding is the most serious form of assault. GBH is defined as causing really serious physical injury, such as a broken bone, loss of consciousness, permanent disability, severe disfigurement and so forth. In some cases, it can even result in death (in which case, the offender is likely to be charged with GBH as a ‘back up’ offence to a manslaughter or murder charge).

What happens if you slap a police officer?

If you slap a police officer, then the type of charge is likely to depend on the severity of any injury caused. If, for instance, slapping a police officer causes some minor bruising and no other serious injuries, then that may be classed as common assault. It could possibly be ABH if the bruising was severe enough. Likewise, if slapping a police officer resulted in a broken jaw or other serious injuries to the face, then the offence is likely to be classed as GBH.

Under any classification, the fact that it was a police officer who was assaulted means the offence will be ‘aggravated’.

What sentences can you get for assaulting a police officer?

Asking what sentence assaulting a cop gets you is perhaps one of the most common in relation to these offences. The maximum sentence for assaulting a police officer is life imprisonment, although this would only apply in cases of extremely serious violence causing very serious injury (i.e. those charged under the GBH offence). Other non-life sentences are graded according to the seriousness of the crime.

  • If convicted of assaulting a police officer under section 89 of the Police Act 1996: up to 6 months’ imprisonment, and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
  • If convicted of obstructing a police officer under section 89 of the Police Act 1996: up to 1 month in prison, and/or a fine of £1,000.
  • If convicted of common assault of an emergency worker: up to one year’s imprisonment (or two years’ if the assault was racially or religiously aggravated).
  • If convicted of actual bodily harm: up to five years’ imprisonment (or seven years’ if the assault was racially or religiously aggravated).
  • If convicted of grievous bodily harm: up to five years’ imprisonment (or seven years’ if the assault was racially or religiously aggravated) without intent, or up to a life sentence if the assault was committed with intent to cause GBH or wounding.

What section is assault on a police officer?

Usually, when people refer to a ‘section offence’ in relation to assaulting a police officer, they are referring to the Section 89 offences under the Police Act 1996 (assaulting a constable in the execution of his (or her or their) duty, or a person assisting a constable in the course of his (or her or their) duty, or resisting or wilfully obstructing a constable in the execution of his (or her or their) duty).

What is obstructing a police officer in the UK?

Obstructing a police officer in the UK is an offence governed by Section 89 of the Police Act 1996. The offence is less serious than an assault on a police officer, but nonetheless is taken seriously. To succeed in a prosecution, three things must be proven:

  • Obstruction, meaning an act or omission (failure to act) that makes it more difficult for a police officer to carry out their duty (this can also involve a refusal to cooperate);
  • that the obstruction was deliberate or calculated, not accidental; and
  • that the police officer was acting in the course of their duty.

The Police Act 1996 does not provide any elaborations of these requirements, so it is up to the courts to determine their meanings in relation to each case.

Can the police assault suspects?

The police are not permitted, in any circumstance, to commit an assault against a suspect. That said, they are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ if you try to run away or otherwise escape their custody that – if used by a citizen – could constitute the act of assault. These actions most often include tackling someone, holding someone against the ground, or otherwise physically restraining someone.

Are police allowed to kick you?

No, the police are not allowed to kick you. This is because, generally speaking, kicking someone would be an unreasonable use of force that is highly unlikely to be required in the circumstances.

Can the police punch you?

Like kicking, the police are not legally allowed to punch you. Punching someone is generally considered to be an excessive and unreasonable use of force that is unjustified by most arrest and custodial situations.

Can you sue a police officer personally in the UK?

Although it is illegal for the police to assault a person in the UK (through kicking, punching, or applying other unreasonable force), there are numerous complaints lodged against the police for this every year. Some complaints are justified, whereas others are dismissed due to the police officer needing to use more extensive force or having to defend themselves or others.

If you believe you have been treated by the police in an unreasonable forceful manner during an arrest or at the police station, consult an experienced solicitor for advice on how to proceed. Even if criminal charges against the police are not successful, you may still be able to sue them in the civil courts for any harm caused to you (which can include psychological harm as well as physical harm).

Where to get help with assaulting a police officer charges?

If you’re facing charges for assaulting a police officer, it’s important to get legal advice as soon as possible. It is also imperative that you get advice from a reputable law firm with demonstrated experience in handling such complex and serious cases. The team at Stuart Miller Solicitors can offer you the representation you need. Contact us today for a free, non-judgemental conversation about your defence options.


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