UNDERCOVER police are being sent out to catch homeless people begging with more than one arrested every week.
Rough sleepers are being criminalised by Sussex Police operations to arrest and prosecute those living on the streets and desperate for small change.
The tactics have come under fire by critics who have questioned the “pointless system” that costs the taxpayer thousands of pounds and sees beggars fined hundreds of pounds only to have to go back on the streets.
In a recent case magistrates questioned the public interest in taking to court a rough sleeper who asked for ten pence in the street.
He is just one of more than 16 defendants called before Brighton Magistrates’ Court in the past two months. A total of 62 were arrested last year.
The cases will have cost the public purse more than £16,000.
Defence solicitors and magistrates questioned whether it was in the public interest to pursue the case of homeless Ashley Hackett.
The 34-year-old was reading a newspaper in Western Road, Brighton, before asking a passer-by for ten pence.
He was then approached by two police officers – Sgt Siggs and PC Platts and arrested under the Vagrancy Act.
The case so far has already cost the judiciary more than £1,000 to bring Ashley to court. The case will now involve a half day trial and two police officers taken away from their other duties.
Businessman Jason Knight took Ashley into his home after seeing him sleeping on the streets.
He said he was appalled to see rough sleepers fined for begging and felt compelled to try to get the rules changed.
He said: “These people should not be arrested for begging.
“It is completely ridiculous that people get arrested for this. These guys should be supported and not arrested. Clearly this system isn’t working.”
He is now launching a campaign to try to change the system.
Defence solicitor Ray Pape told The Argus he had dealt with an increasing number of begging cases.
He said: “There have been more and more cases recently.
“I have had cases where undercover police have been targeting people, standing near them and jangling coins in their pockets waiting for them to ask for some change.
“I cant understand why it is in the public interest to prosecute this sort of case.
“We are not talking about aggressive or persistent begging or people being harassed or targeted at night.
“Ashley was reading a newspaper.”
Two Crown prosecutors dealing with Ashley’s case said that there was a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) policy to always prosecute begging cases and that no leniency would be shown.
Typically less than 50 per cent of court fines are paid – meaning the costs of the cases is unlikely to ever be recouped regardless of the scale of the fine.
A spokeswoman for the CPS said that they would consider the “code for crown prosecutors and the public interest in bringing cases to court”.
She added that in Mr Hackett’s case the fact that he had previously been convicted for begging would have been likely to have added weight to the “public interest” in seeing him prosecuted again.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act by Sussex Police show that 680 people were convicted of begging between 2010 and 2015.
The force introduced Operation Coin to tackle the issue and deliberately target beggars in 2005.
A Sussex Police spokesman said: “We use plain clothes officers to gather evidence against people begging as they are not likely to ask a uniformed officer for money.
“The street community neighbourhood policing team work closely with partner agencies to address the problem of begging as we recognise that people beg for many different reasons.
“If we know someone who has been begging is now engaging with the various programmes and agencies which offer support and help, then we will look for alternative ways to address the anti-social behaviour, such as words of advice and encouragement to continue on the support programmes.
“It is unlikely that they will be arrested.
“However, if we see someone begging who has refused help from the agencies, then they can be arrested.
“There were 62 arrests for begging in Brighton and Hove in 2015.”
BEGGAR’S PUNISHMENT IS PROBLEMATIC FOR ALL
ASHLEY HACKETT had been on the streets of Brighton for eight years when he was found on Western Road on a Wednesday morning in late January.
He woke up from his cold, uncomfortable night’s sleep and read a newspaper huddled in a doorway in his sleeping bag. He asked a passer-by for spare change. Then Sgt Siggs and PC Platt of Brighton police who were on duty nearby arrested him.
He was taken into custody and charged with begging – a criminal offence under the 1824 vagrancy Act. He was banned from going to the Western Road area where he normally lives, where his friends are and services and food donations are available to help him survive unforgiving conditions on the street.
Exactly two weeks later he woke up in the doorway of Waterstone’s in North Street. He had been offered a bed at his generous friend and campaigner Jason Knight’s home. But he was terrified for the safety of a female friend who was unwell. He was convinced that if he left her alone “she’s going to die out there” or be sexually assaulted or come to some other harm.
So he stayed with her but had to leave her in the morning to face the court.
In the court waiting area he was agitated and feared his morning at the Magistrates’ Court could cost his friend her life.
Ashley and his defence solicitor Ray Paper will argued that while he plainly accepted asking for money that morning two weeks ago he did not deliberately place himself in the Western Road doorway for the purpose of begging.
That was where he lived and by virtue of that, that is where he was at the time he asked for money.
Ashley had been before the court on a begging charge before. That time he pleaded guilty.
Ray Pape, a state appointed duty solicitor, has represented dozens of other homeless people in the same situation. They more often than not admit the charge – landing themselves a criminal conviction and fine and court costs they cannot pay.
They will be back on the streets in a matter of hours and once again forced to beg for money.
Ashley openly admits that he will be back begging before the end of the day.
“I have to do it to survive,” he said.
Ashley’s case has cost the taxpayer more than £1,000. He will have to return to the court for a trial in another month’s time. Before a decision has been made one way or another it will have cost the taxpayer thousands more.
“People are being arrested for begging all the time,” he said.
“The police hang around near you to try and catch you asking for money. I also know people who’ve been arrested by undercover officers.”
Begging is a criminal offence. The charge he faces was introduced to punish “idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds”.
The charge he faces is defined as “placing himself in a public place street or highway to beg or gather alms.”
It is punishable by a fine or a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure for up to a month.
For many on the streets it is sadly a more attractive option to the grim reality of trying to find not only the money to survive but also the funds to pay court fines.
In reality, 61 per cent of the fines imposed by the court will never be recovered.
Figures revealed last year showed there were £549 million worth of outstanding fines owed to magistrates’ courts across the country.
But Ashley and Mr Pape will try to challenge that law.
Mr Pape will argue on Ashley’s behalf that while he did “beg or gather alms” he had not deliberately placed himself in Western Road for that purpose.
Sussex Police’s own description of the law published on their website simply states “it is an offence to beg in a public place and the beggar can be arrested for committing this offence.”
The defence is yet to be tested.
Mr Knight, a generous soul who feels desperately compassionate towards the city’s street community and has so far taken three homeless men off the streets and into his home, hopes to have the law changed in Parliament.
He is seeking support from Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas on the issue and plans to launch a petition to have the law reviewed.
Last month dozens of activists protested outside Brighton Magistrates’ Court against criminalising homeless people with begging convictions – sparked by the case of Richard Joab, who was ordered to pay £210 after being convicted of begging in Bond Street.
In custody at Hollingbury police station Ashley refused to consent to a drug test – also a criminal offence.
In Mr Pape’s words “he felt unsurprisingly aggrieved at having been arrested for begging.”
He pleaded guilty to the offence related to the drugs test. He will be sentenced after a decision has been reached on the begging charge.
Either way he is in no doubt he will return to the city’s streets and have no option but to ask for money to survive.
SIXTEEN PEOPLE FINED FOR BEGGING IN TWO MONTHS – COSTING £1,000 A CASE
AT LEAST 16 defendants have appeared before Brighton Magistrates’ Court for begging offences in the past two months alone.
Between them they have been ordered to pay more than £2,865 in fines and court costs but the cost to the public purse is expected to be at least £1,000 a case.
Richard Power, 43, of Brunswick Place, Hove, was ordered to pay £155 in fines and court costs after admitting begging in Western Road.
Carina Head, 34, of no fixed abode was issued a six month conditional discharge after admitting begging outside Brighton Town Hall, in Bartholomew Square. But she was also ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge.
Homeless Michael Fox, 27, was fined £70 plus a £20 victim surcharge after pleading guilty to begging in London Road.
Christopher Jones, 28, gave the court his address as the First Base hostel in Montpelier Place, when he admitted begging in Castle Square on December 21. He was given a six month conditional discharge.
Richard Blackford, 34, who was living in Oriental Place, was arrested for begging on New Year’s Day in St James’ Street and fined £50.
Bernice Howley, 38, was ordered to pay £295 for begging in St James’ Street. She was fined £40, ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £20 and costs of £235. On another occasion, she pleaded guilty to begging in Queens Road and was ordered to pay £220.
Nuno Domingues, 31, of no fixed address, was given a six month conditional discharge after admitting begging in London Road – but also ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge and £150 criminal courts charge.
The case of Richard Joab, 47, hit the headlines when he was ordered to pay £150 court costs, plus a £60 fine, for begging in Bond Street.
On the same day the same court also ordered homeless Jessica Robinson to pay £165 – made up of a £15 fine plus £150 costs – for begging in Old Steine. The balance will be deducted from her benefits at a rate of £20 a month.
Colleen Laverty, 36, of no fixed address, also appeared to plead guilty to begging outside Sainsbury’s in St James’s Street. She is due to be sentenced today (Mon).
Homeless Anya Anderson, 30, was ordered to pay £295 in costs and fines (£40) after admitting begging in Prince Albert Street.
Paul Flissikowski, 50, of Bolney Road, pleaded guilty to begging in London Road. He was fined £30 but ordered to pay a total of £200 including costs.
Homeless Ashley Hackett, 34, was previously in court on December 10 when he was ordered to pay £295 – made up of a £40 fine and £150 courts charge – for begging in Western Road and breaching a previous six month conditional discharge issued for an earlier offence of begging issued by Central Sussex Magistrates’s court on June 6. He was ordered to pay a total of £295 in fines and court costs.
Ombrej Mraz, 33, of Whitehawk Way was ordered to pay £295 after admitting begging in Queen's Road.
Paul Chater, 33, of no fixed address, was fined £10 for begging in Western Road – but as he is serving a conditional discharge for a previous offence of theft he had to pay a total of £265 including court costs.
Peter Gilmartin, 44, of the Glenwood Lodge Hostel, in Grand Parade, had to pay £210 after admitting begging in Jubilee Street.
Between April 2011 and March 2012, 62 beggars were arrested in Brighton and Hove – more than double the 25 arrested the year before.