New Plan Gives Poilce Power to Arrest People Who Drop Chewing Gum
Police would gain sweeping powers to arrest anyone committing an offence - no matter how minor - under proposals published today by Home Secretary David Blunkett.
It could in theory lead to people being arrested for even the most trivial crimes, from dropping litter to daubing graffiti.
The move would simplify complex laws under which some offences are deemed "arrestable" but others are not.
But police did not call for the extension to their powers. And civil liberties groups have condemned the proposals.
Barry Hugill, spokesman for Liberty, said: "Today it's dropping a crisp packet, next week it will be failing to return a library book. The Government seems hell-bent on turning an essentially law-abiding nation into a nation of criminals."
Current rules state that police can arrest anyone suspected of a crime punishable by five years in prison.
Recent changes in the law have made some less serious offences arrestable but others not, creating complexities for police.
Under today's plans, outlined in a Home Office consultation paper, police could arrest suspects for any crime but only after a "necessity test" - if they were thought likely to run away or give a false name, to preserve evidence, or for their own protection.
A Home Office spokesman insisted: "It does not mean police could make an arrest willy-nilly."
Chewing gum and cigarette ends could be legally defined as litter, so that anyone seen dropping-them could in theory be arrested. But Home Office minister Hazel Blears said most litterbug offences should be dealt with by fixed penalty notices.
Pointing to confusion under the current law, she said: "At the moment a constable could come across an offence and he might not be sure whether it's arrestable or not."
As part of the reforms, arrests would no longer be carried out for the catch-all offence of "breach of the peace". Officials predicted that the annual total of arrests would be unchanged.
In further proposals, police could gain powers to search several properties under one warrant if they are all linked to the same individual.
Also, officers could fingerprint at the roadside rather than in police stations, and suspected thieves and muggers could be tested for crack, heroin and cocaine use as soon as they are arrested rather than when they are charged. And for the first time, a suspect's refusal to submit to a drugs search could count against him in court.
The measures appeared to be aimed at bolstering Mr Blunkett's image as a hard-line Home Secretary. They could raise tensions with anti-racism campaigners, who are concerned about existing stop-andsearch powers.
Ms Blears said: "We need to maintain the crucial balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the individual, but we also need to make sure the police and other investigative agencies have the powers they need to tackle crime."