Matthew Norman: Eating an apple can be a serious crime

Knowing they can only take a few to trial, the police show an ungodly talent for choosing the one that'll delight most
Click to follow

Not since Paris, prince of Troy, chose Aphrodite as the recipient of a golden version of the fruit has an apple provoked such contention. Although the trials of Sarah McCaffery will never be made into a Hollywood film, the facts do have the resounding ring of myth (urban in this case). They are these.

Not since Paris, prince of Troy, chose Aphrodite as the recipient of a golden version of the fruit has an apple provoked such contention. Although the trials of Sarah McCaffery will never be made into a Hollywood film, the facts do have the resounding ring of myth (urban in this case). They are these.

On 4 December 2003, Ms McCaffery, a 23-year-old nursery nurse from Hebburn, south Tyneside, was driving to work in her Ford Ka, when at 8.10am she made the left turn which proved both a literal and metaphorical turning point. This was the moment a traffic cop flagged her down, suspecting she was using her mobile when, in fact, as crime history now records, the object in her right hand was a plump and juicy Golden Delicious.

With the luxury of hindsight, it's easy to be smug when analysing pivotal moments in the formation of a legend. One could observe, for instance, that had Paris refused to have anything to do with that apple, there would have been no Trojan war, depriving the world of Homer but sparing Brad Pitt the most embarrassing moment of his career.

Similarly, had the unnamed officer ignored Ms McCaffery's fruit and waved her on, that would have been an end of it. Alas, it seems his Achilles heel was vanity, and rather than apologise he gave her an on-the-spot fine of £30 under the Dangerous Fruits (Non-Citric) Act 2002. Only when she refused to pay did the fun commence. A police helicopter was sequestered to provide aerial photographs of the incident, and there ensued a sequence of 10 court hearings which ended this week with magistrates fining her £60 with £100 costs. The total price of the prosecution is put at £10,000.

That these details became public the day the annual crime figures were published seemed too cute. According to these figures, one in a hundred crimes results in a court case, so it's natural to speculate on the 99 unpunished offences represented by the nailing of Ms McCaffery.

One of these may be the theft of my Audi A3 in the sweltering summer of 2003 from our road in the crack-dealing tourist centre of west London. A few weeks later, a policeman rang to report that two young men had been arrested in it after a high-speed chase in Fulham.

Off I went to Hammersmith police station to give a statement and to be asked to stand by to be a witness for the prosecution.

No one would be so vulgar as to use the term "open and shut case", but on the face of it you wouldn't strictly require a coalition of Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Interpol, Special Branch, the Mossad and Chief Inspector Morse of Thames Valley to crack this one wide open.

Even so, I have heard not another word about it. (I did call Hammersmith nick yesterday, but the promised update remains elusive.) Anecdotal evidence of this kind is far from perfect when it comes to gauging the performance of a public service. But given how the police now make it as difficult as they can to report a crime, to massage the official figures in what we must call a southerly direction, it is more reliable than anything else ... and in the court of public opinion, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

Among this week's other crime reports, we find Patricia Tabram, a Northumberland granny, prosecuted as a drug dealer for selling arthritic friends and neighbours medicinal cheesecakes flavoured with cannabis as well as Mascarpone; and the case of Marcus Aitken, convicted for playing Riverdance music too loudly in his Nissan. Few would contest that a passion for the work of Michael Flatley is a serious offence against taste, but was it necessary to send the bailiffs to Mr Aitken's home in Manchester to recover goods to the value of his £45 fine?

For some time, a constituency far beyond the "middle class motorists" about whose persecution the Daily Mail likes to whine has been asking what, exactly, our police are for. The obvious answer, until now, is that their main role is as an adjunct of the insurance industry, doling out crime reference numbers so we can claim for stolen car radios and DVD players.

Now, an even more valuable purpose becomes apparent. Back in the era of the Golden Jubilee, the received wisdom held that British policing, like the British monarchy, was the envy of the planet. When Tom Robinson sneeringly sang "The British police are the best in the world/ I don't believe one of these stories I've heard" in Glad To Be Gay, it seemed a faintly shocking slur on an institution that was, by and large, and however naively, trusted by those it purported to serve.

A quarter of a century later, the police have precisely replicated the Royal Family by mutating from object of respect to object of ridicule. They may have stopped beating up gays and largely curtailed the harassment of ethnic minorities, and thank God for that.

Meanwhile, they have channelled all that spare energy into producing a regular diet of incredulous laughter.

In any Christmas stocking-filler entitled Kooky Kops And Their Krazy Kapers, Alan Hunt would feature prominently. When this civic-minded actor attended an identity parade in Bournemouth 16 months ago, he had, like Ms McCaffery, foregone his breakfast. Having no fruit to hand, he helped himself to a cheese sandwich from the lunch of one PC Chris Biggs, and on catching him red handed (tomato ketchup was involved) three officers frogmarched Mr Hunt down to the cells, despite Mr Hunt's offer to buy PC Biggs a replacement baguette, where they held him for eight hours before charging him with theft. Mr Hunt was convicted at a cost, in police man hours and court time, of several thousand nicker.

Some will view such prosecutions as an insane waste of taxpayers' money, just as some think the same about the royals. Such cheapskates are deluded. The Civil List costs every Briton 58p a year, and for this we are rewarded with unending mirth and merriment.

Similarly, the aggregated annual cost of demented police prosecutions would set each of us back by less than the daily price of this newspaper. It's the bargain of the century.

One could be pious and draw some crude ironies here, contrasting the treatment of Ms McCaffery with the non-prosecution of officers who killed 30 people in the last year during police chases. We could reflect that the Police Federation is a nasty and anachronistically powerful trade union that needs sorting out by a courageous home secretary. And we might make the point that, with Charles Clarke poised further to degrade natural justice with more draconian legislation, it would be nice if we could have a little faith that those paid to enforce the new laws were something more than educationally subnormal petty bureaucrats.

Tempting as it is, however, this is one time to lay off the sanctimony and simply celebrate the wit and wisdom of the British police. Knowing they can only take one crime out of a hundred to trial, they show an ungodly talent for choosing the one that will delight us most. In an ideal world, we would expect our police to show the Judgement of Solomon. In the real world of rotten apples in every barrel, the Judgement of Paris will have to do.