Legal: can I hide my face from police facial recognition camera?

You’ve probably seen the headline: “Police fine man for hiding his face from facial recognition camera”. Sounds bad right? An ordinary bloke in Romford gets fined £90 for just trying to protect his privacy from indiscriminate police surveillance. It’s a story seemingly designed to unite chemtrail huffing anti-vaxxers and comment-section-Dads in a rousing chorus of “Big Brother is Watching You!”. The only problem is, it’s just not true.

Unless you’ve been arrested, you are not legally obliged to comply with police attempts to photograph or film you, and you are well within your rights to hide your face or walk away. However, as our man from Romford found out, the police often view non-compliance with filming as suspicious behaviour, and sufficient reason for them to ask you few questions (which you don’t have to answer) or to stop and search you (which, legally, you do have to comply with). If this happens, the best thing to do is to keep your mouth shut: don’t answer any questions and don’t try and debate the cops.

Our man in Romford took a more direct approach, loudly informing the officers attempting to detain him that they could, and should, “fuck off”. It was for this act – rather than covering his face – that he received a fine, in the form of a ‘Penalty Notice for Disorder’ for having supposedly breached Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Under Section 5 a person is guilty of an offence if they:

(a) use threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive],

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

According to the High Court, however, swearing at cops will not, in many instances, qualify as a Section 5 offence.  To quote Lord Justice Glidewell in DPP vs Orum [1989]:

“Very frequently words and behaviour with which police officers will be wearily familiar will have little emotional impact on them save that of boredom. It may well be that, in appropriate circumstances, justices will decide (indeed they might decide in the present case) as a question of fact that the words and behaviour were not likely in all the circumstances to cause harassment, alarm or distress to either of the police officers. That is a question of fact for the justices to be decided in all the circumstances, the time, the place, the nature of the words used, who the police officers are, and so on.”

In other words: cops are sworn at so frequently that being told to “fuck off” can’t be thought to cause them harassment, alarm or distress, unless there is something especially aggressive or threatening about the act (e.g. it involved 4 huge skinheads getting right up in the face of a lone 5’4” Community Support Officer).

Alas, the police are not renowned for their knowledge of case law and many officers continue to believe that swearing at them is enough to warrant an arrest or a spot fine. If this happens, it is crucial that you get in touch with a Netpol recommended solicitor and force the cops to prove their case in court.

Carl Spender


Image: Netpol