BOOKER’S column from yesterday is a must-read. The details:
In December 2007 the two McBrides appeared in Liverpool Crown Court, having pleaded guilty earlier in the year to misidentifying catches of fish for which they had no quota under EU rules. But instead of just asking for fines to be imposed on fishermen who break quota rules, the Marine Fisheries Agency (MFA) now has a new tactic. It calls in the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) to use the Proceeds of Crime Act, designed to recover money from international drugs traffickers, money launderers and other major criminals.
Soca – which last year replaced the Assets Recovery Agency, after it had spent £65 million to recover £23 million – assumes that if someone has benefited from the proceeds of crime for more than six months, he is living “a criminal lifestyle”. Everything he owns can then be deemed to have derived from criminal activity.
In the case of Charlie and Charles McBride, all their assets were thus valued at more than £1 million, including their boat and homes (valued at the height of the property boom). On this basis Judge Nigel Gilmour not only imposed on them fines of £385,000 – infinitely more than the value of the fish they had wrongly declared – but ruled that all their assets should be frozen as “proceeds of crime”, even though the home and boat had been bought before the offences were committed. He also told the men that, unless they paid the fines within six months, they would go to prison for up to three years.
At their wits’ end as to how to raise the money, the two McBrides negotiated a second mortgage on their homes. Charlie McBride presented Soca with £120,000, asking that it should be taken as a down-payment on the fine until he had somehow found the rest. The agency asked how he had come by the money and, when told that it came from remortgaging his house, told him that he would be charged with contempt of court because the house was a “frozen asset”.
Two weeks ago the two men were accordingly jailed for contempt, and having been allowed one telephone call to tell his wife Karen what had happened, Charlie is now serving out his sentence as a prison refuse collector.
So, you are fined and must pay the State lots of money. However, you cannot use either your own money or any assets to raise the money – because the State has frozen your assets.
This is justice Banana Republic-style. Forget the ‘crime’ of which they’ve been found guilty (it used to be called ‘fishing’ until foreigners started making our laws), it’s the absurdity of the fine and the State’s de facto restriction on ways to go about meeting it. Thus supposedly free people, protected by the law, lose their liberty.