Stealing from a bin and the Vagrancy Act 1824

cpsThe men have been charged with an offence under Vagrancy Act 1824 s 4, namely that they were found in an area, Iceland, for an unlawful purpose, stealing food. In fact, it is said that they were taking food items out of a skip, prior to them presumably being thrown away.

The Guardian has a report of the story here, which is worth a read.

UPDATE: There is a press release from Iceland which makes clear they did not call the police and are seeking clarification as to why the CPS believe it to be in the public interest to prosecute.

UPDATE 2: The CPS have confirmed they have dropped the prosecution. See the press statement for details.

There are a number of issues here, which have been discussed in case law, some of it, recent. These include what does ‘found’ mean, what does ‘unlawful purpose’ mean and when does the unlawful purpose need to exist.

Those wishing to do some further reading may want to look at the following cases:

L v DPP 2007 EWHC 1843 (Admin)

Smith v Chief Superintendent of Woking Police Station (1983) 76 Cr. App. R. 234

Talbot v DPP [2000] 1 W.L.R. 1102

One interesting point that appears to arise from the Smith case is that the unlawful purpose must be criminal, and not merely a wrongful act such as a tort (e.g. trespass). So consider the situation where the unlawful (criminal) purpose is said to be theft.

Does that then require an evaluation of the offence of theft?

The unlawful purpose of committing theft

Theft Act 1968 s 1 defines theft as ‘dishonestly appropriating property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it’. Section 7 sets out the maximum sentence of 7 years for a person convicted of theft.

Sections 2 to 6 define the elements of the offence. All five elements must be proven in order for the offence to be ‘made out’. The only one we are really concerned with is the first.


 A person is not dishonest (for the purposes of theft) if he appropriates the property:

(a) in the belief that he has in law the right to deprive the other of it, on behalf of himself or of a third person; or

(b) in the belief that he would have the other’s consent if the other knew of the appropriation and the circumstances of it; or

(c) in the belief that the person to whom the property belongs cannot be discovered by taking reasonable steps.

So there would be problems showing that the ‘thief’ did not believe that they had the consent of either the council responsible for emptying the bin or the supermarket who placed the property into the bin.

So if it cannot be shown that the individuals were in the area specified with the intention of committing a theft (because they believed they had the consent of the owner) then it would appear that they are not guilty of an offence at all.

CPS policy

 A final thought.

The Full Code Test, emlployed by the CPS when deciding whether to charge someone is as follows.

The evidential stage: Prosecutors must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against each suspect on each charge.

The public interest stage: In every case where there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, prosecutors must go on to consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest.

Perhaps it is necessary to add a third limb to this test – the idiot test: ‘could someone legitimately call me an idiot for pursuing this prosecution?’ It might save a few quid (and keep the naked rambler out of jail too).

17 thoughts on “Stealing from a bin and the Vagrancy Act 1824

  1. Matt Flaherty

    Important as well to point out that with the Full Code Test, it is in the specified order: evidential, public interest. It is never to be done in the reverse order for reasons which I hope are obvious. It seems that was done here.

  2. Peter English

    It is bizarre if taking something that has been put out to be taken away and disposed of is theft.

    There are three entities involved:

    1 The person/company disposing of the items
    2 The person/council/waste collection service
    3 The accused person who took items destined for the waste collection service.

    Arguably the accused person was doing both of the other entities a favour, given that the waste collection service will be saved the cost of disposal, and the person disposing of the item would have had it removed even sooner than expected, and if charged according to the amount of waste removed, would recover some of the savings…

    So why in a rational world is this a crime?

  3. Ruth Sutton

    Items left out for waste are classed as property belonging to another capable of being stolen as any A level law student will tell you :

    “Williams v Phillips (1957) 41 Cr App R 5.

    A householder put refuse out for collection by the local authority refuse workers. It was held by the Divisional Court that such refuse remained property belonging to the householder until collected, whereupon property passed to the local authority. Hence, refuse workers helping themselves to such property could be convicted of theft, on the basis that the property never became ownerless.”

    The issue is whether these people were acting dishonestly as set out in the blog. Even if s2 does not apply, the prosecution would have to prove BRD that they were acting dishonestly and it is open to a jury / magistrates to not find dishonesty in these circumstances, indeed likely. This does make the CPS decision surprising, although we are often not in full position of the facts when they are reported in the media.

  4. Dr Sean Thomas

    As Ruth Sutton notes ‘any A level law student will [point you in the direction of Williams v Phillips].’ Maybe, but that would be wrong I think. That case is of limited authority (and is probably only relevant for cases where the accused is an employee of the alleged victim). The general issues here ie theft of apparently abandoned goods is discussed in my article: S Thomas, ‘Do freegans commit theft?’ (2010) 30 Legal Studies 98. Very briefly, I argue that there is no theft (a) because there is no dishonesty and (b) the goods are probably abandoned. It is a bit more complex than that, but essentially that’s the jist of it.

    1. Special by name... (@ResponseSC)

      I agree that it should not be a crime to take property in the given circumstances. However, if I leave rubbish in the street for collection, I do not want somebody going through it. You can learn a lot about someone from their disposed items, even if there are no documents which have not been shredded. In the circumstance of taking from the bins of an individual, it should be a crime. The distinction has to be made between residential and commercial waste.

  5. Pingback: The end of the day round-up

  6. Liberte, Egalite, Sororite

    I don’t understand why the outrage they stole food and certainly don’t look hard up. They wouldn’t have walked into the store and helped themselves without paying even if that food taken might eventually have ended up in a skip at the end of the day. Judging by the pic of the one guy I saw he was neither homeless nor starving.

  7. tony

    I am wondering since they had taken the items and left the premises, thereby committing a theft surly the vagrancy act would not apply as the provision is inrelation to intending to commit an arrest-able offence and not committing an arrest-able offence such as theft

  8. Dan Bunting

    If they intended to keep the property (which they clearly did) then they commit theft when they pick them up. I imagine the reason that they didn’t charge theft is purely because they knew the defendants would be entitled to a jury trial (which they would have taken) and it would have been promptly laughed out of Court …


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