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Why that penknife in your pocket makes you a crook

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: April 17, 2010

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How many people go camping in the Westcountry without a penknife of some kind in the glove compartment of their car? Only the foolhardy, we imagine, since a handy knife – particularly one of those Swiss Army models – is as essential a piece of kit as a waterproof jacket and a hat if you are venturing into the great outdoors.

Yet the sobering truth is that every one of them is potentially committing a criminal offence. After the conviction this week of disabled caravanner Rodney Knowles for possession of an "offensive weapon", the risk of any one of those innocent campers being arrested, taken to court and given a fine and, much, much worse, a criminal record is alarmingly high.

How on earth has it come to this? How has an entire group of people; law-abiding, taxpayers and in many cases pillars of the community, become criminalised for doing nothing more sinister than possessing a useful tool that is no more dangerous than a screwdriver or the wheel brace found in everyone's wheel-changing set?

The answer, sadly, is the frightening explosion of knife crime in London and some other inner city areas which has led to the deaths of a number of young men, who have been stabbed in street fights. Making the possession of every knife "without lawful excuse" a criminal offence is not the answer, however. Arresting Mr Knowles, taking him to court, forcing him to hand over his Swiss Army Knife and making him pay £40 in costs won't prevent a single vicious attack with a knife in inner-city Britain.

As so often happens the forces of law and order, from the politicians right down to the bobby on the beat, have come up with the wrong response to a serious problem. Like the dangerous dogs act and the banning of an entire category of firearm in the wake of the Dunblane tragedy, the innocent suffer and the guilty continue to carry out their criminal activities.

Has gun crime fallen significantly since the measures introduced after the horror of Dunblane? Have dog attacks and the number of intimidating dogs on our streets gone down since those laws came in? In both cases the answer must be no. A crackdown on the gangs engaged in knife crime may have reduced stabbings in London, but that has nothing to do with the harassment of innocent country lovers who slip a penknife into their pocket before they go out for the day.

And that, surely, is the point. Blanket bans persecute the innocent and make life more difficult for the very people the police and the law-makers ought to be working to keep onside. Every time they take a man like Rodney Knowles to court for carrying penknife used to cut up fruit, they chip away at the faith the majority of law-abiding citizens have in the police and those who direct them.

And in recent years the traffic has been in one direction only. We are now more closely monitored by hidden cameras, more tightly regulated by anti-terrorist measures and more tightly policed than at any time in our history. Yet we don't feel safer as a result. Just put upon.

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    Ryan, Devon  |  July 15 2010, 1:09PM

    TEIGNBRIDGE'S senior police officer yesterday explained why a disabled Newton Abbot man was taken to court for possessing a knife he claimed he used for cutting up fruit. Superintendent Jim Meakin spoke publicly for the first time on why 61-year-old Rodney Knowles was charged with possessing the weapon ¿ described in court as a Swiss Army-style knife. Knowles, an enthusiastic caravanner, was arrested when the knife was found in his car's glove compartment soon after he left a Newton Abbot pub. In the subsequent court case Knowles admitted the charge and was given a conditional discharge. The court was told at the time that the knife was used for cutting up fruit on picnics with his wife, for whom he is the full-time carer. The case made national headlines and Supt Meakin has since received up to 17 letters from concerned residents and would-be visitors about the case. He issued his statement to clarify the law and explain why police took the action that they did. He said: "We stopped a very serious incident happening." Knowles, 61, of Buckland, appeared before magistrates last month after he admitted possessing a knife. The case related to the night of February 23 when Knowles was stopped by police after leaving the Highweek Inn pub. He was arrested for suspected drink-driving but a breath test showed he was under the legal limit. Police searched his car and found the knife. Because he pleaded guilty some background details to the case were not given in open court, the Crown Prosecution Service says. Supt Meakin said in his statement: "At 11.45pm on February 23, police received a report that while Mr Knowles was in the Highweek Inn he had made an alleged threat that he was going to use a knife to harm someone. "The police were advised that Mr Knowles had left the address in a vehicle. "The vehicle was stopped a short while later by my police officers, where Mr Knowles was arrested for supplying a positive breath test. A further test at the police station proved he was under the legal drink drive limit." "The vehicle was searched for a weapon and a Buck Whittaker lock knife was found. The knife is illegal and has a serrated edge." Supt Meakin maintained it was not a Swiss Army-style knife, as stated in Knowles's court case by prosecutor Philip Sewell. Supt Meakin said: "Mr Knowles was interviewed the following morning about the alleged threats and the Crown Prosecution Service made a decision, based on all the circumstances, to charge Mr Knowles with the knife offence. "I was really pleased that the police responded immediately to concerns raised by members of the public and local business community. The intervention stopped what could have been a very serious incident. "I have personally spoken to and responded to various members of the community, members of the public who visit or wish to visit our district. "Some of these letters were written by fishing clubs, camping and caravan associations and holidaymakers who had concerns regarding the reported article. "I can assure you that people who possess a Swiss Army knife for a bona fide reason will not be prosecuted. "I must point out that the law is clear: it is an offence for any person, without lawful authority or good reason, to have with him in a public place, any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed, except for a folding pocket knife which has a cutting edge to its blade not exceeding three inches." A Crown Prosecution Service spokesman said: "Mr Knowles pleaded guilty so there wasn't a full trial and therefore all the facts did not come out in court. We are grateful to the police for their prompt action and stand 100 per cent behind our decision to prosecute Mr Knowles." Mr Knowles's solicitor Jolyon Tuck said: "I can say quite safely Mr Knowles has no comment to make."