Although limited defences are available, there was no argument in Torquay Magistrates' Court (reported Friday April 15) because he pleaded guilty and was told to pay £40 costs, had the £30 knife confiscated, and was given a conditional discharge.
Had Knowles been carrying a folding, non-locking Swiss Army-type knife with a blade of a maximum of three inches, the item would not have come within the scope of Section 139(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, although it could still be classed as an offensive weapon depending on the circumstances.
Outside the court, however, Mr Knowles gained a full spread of national and local media coverage where he presented a good reason for having the knife, as per the general defence available under s.4, for having the article with him in a public place. He kept it with his car repair kit. He also goes caravanning and has picnics where he peels fruit for his wife, although he was not at that moment repairing a car or on a picnic.
Considering he is a 61 year old retired engineer with no criminal record, this sounds to most reasonable people like a good reason for having a tool which otherwise has to be covered by specific defences such as work, religious reasons, or part of a national costume. Mr Knowles didn't have the presence of mind to explain that going caravanning IS a religion for its adherents, as per the specific defence available for religious use under s.5. If he'd had David Appleton's handy wallet-sized extract of the law in his glove box, he might have known this.
[Update Feb 9 2011. Due to David Appleton's maintenance on his website, that link no longer works. You will have to copy out S.139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and highlight it for yourself.]
In court, Mr Knowles' defence solicitor, Jolyon Tuck, confirmed Knowles had used the knife to cut up fruit on picnics with his wife. He then went on to say
"He accepts it is in his car and the law is very clear," he said. "He admits possession of it and he had no good reason for having it."
He did have a good reason, Jolyon, you yourself told the court. He cuts up fruit with it. He goes caravanning and on picnics. He repairs cars. He's a retired engineer. Either this is poor defence work or it's a calculated bet that a criminal record matters less to a retired 61 year old than it would to a younger man, and that a guilty plea would minimize the fine and remove any risk of imprisonment.
Perhaps Tuck got the case because he normally does the motoring cases and is a duty solicitor, and this one started when the police used the pretext of drunk driving to breathalyse and then blood-test Mr Knowles. As it happens, he was sober, and there was no other immediate motoring offence offered, such as driving without insurance and while disqualified, or in a heap which lacked an MOT. The police had nothing to charge him with, except he was supposed to have said something nasty down the pub.
As a reward for Tuck rolling his client over nicely, the CPS went for an early bath and a win on points:
[Update 25 Feb 2011. Jolyon Tuck points out that as events unfolded, his service to his client was in fact unimpeachable but for reasons which could not be made apparent at the time. His comments are below and are repeated in a separate post which brings the story up to date]
Prosecutor Philip Sewell said: "He told officers that he had the knife for caravanning. He is not working and had no malicious reason for carrying the blade."
Pointing out that Knowles was not working was irrelevant in the context that Tuck had not tried either a general or specific defence. The CPS put it forward as if it was of itself malign, a telling point. Accepting though, that Knowles had no malicious reason for a carrying the knife puts the police on the spot. The police's whole case was predicated on the belief that persons unidentified told them that Knowles was going to do something dangerous with the knife and they were preventing it. Something doesn't match here.
The bench, faced with a guilty plea, passed sentence. Chairman of the bench Robert Horne ordered forfeiture of the knife (worth about £30) and £40 costs to be paid. He said: "There is no previous conviction history whatsoever and it was not in his possession and was in the car glove compartment in a pouch."
The resulting furore rattled the police. Nearly all touring caravans and campers with their field kitchens will have knives which fit within the general category of a bladed object within s.2. A standard steak knife has a 4.5 inch serrated blade.
Letters came in from people suggesting they could spend their holiday money elsewhere if Devon police were going to be awkward about fishermen gutting their catches and barbecuing them as a leisure activity, rather than as paid work. Were they seriously going to arrest everyone who has a bread knife on their picnic table in a caravan park to which the public have access?
On 21 May Superintendent Jim Meakin issued a statement in an effort to stem damage to the tourist trade, and issued a photograph of an officer holding the alleged knife, which they still had a month after the trial.
It didn't, he complained, help that the CPS prosecutor, Philip Sewell, had described the knife as "a Swiss-Army type". The police crossly said that Sewell had told the court wrong. It wasn't a Swiss Army-type. They produced the knife, which does indeed look wicked because it is tricked-up in Rambo black, but then so are all the others in my kitchen drawer.
From the picture it appears to be the Buck Whittaker X-Track Multitool. Buck Whittaker is a line of outdoor tools developed by Buck to the specification of Peter Whittaker. There are about a dozen variants, some of which have LED torches. The Ultimo Supremo Macho also plays the Theme from Shaft.
It's hard to tell from the photos, but it appears to be the cultishly named 7030BKX-B which is bristling with: a Full size (3 inch) partially serrated knife blade, Spring-loaded needle nose pliers, Wire cutter (12-gauge), Flathead screwdriver (3/16"), Phillips screwdriver (NUM2 size), Bottle/Can opener. Exactly the sort of thing a retired engineer might have.
More pertinently for English law, it is definitely a lock knife (given in the technical specifications) and has what the courts have traditionally abhorred: one-hand operation which presumably means it springs open. These are associated with the flick knives and concealed weapons used by assassins.
It cashes out to this. Mr Knowles had in his glove box an item which has mechanisms the law specifically wishes to discourage, namely a blade which springs open (probably) and which also can be locked in place making it count as a fixed blade.
[Update: Pete corrects this in the comments. There is no spring mechanism. There is a knob on the blade which can be pushed open using the thumb. It can be seen on view 4 in the catalogue window. For legal purposes, the relevant point is that it is a lock-knife and therefore equivalent to a 3 inch fixed blade. ]
Mr Knowles had a reason for owning such a tool, but 'good' reason ends up dancing on the pin-head that he could have had a a similar multi-tool without a lock, and that would have been excluded from s.139. Even if he had a permitted design of Swiss Army knife in his glove box (some of them lock and are therefore unsuitable), the police have the right to challenge him, or anyone, if they thought it was likely to be used as an offensive weapon.
Yet there are still mysteries around this case, notably why did the police dig in so? Supt Meakin explained:
"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."
Although he might have been expected to leave at 11.45 anyway, someone was sufficiently alarmed to call the police. Whoever they were worried about, it wasn't someone being threatened in the pub, but the person(s) he was going after in the middle of the night. Supt Meakin continued, adamantly:
"The intervention stopped what could have been a very serious incident."
It's easier to see why the CPS pressed the charges; because of the definition of the possession, it's an instant case and the obligation is on the charged person to show good reason for having the bladed object in a public place. A spokesperson 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."
"We are grateful to the police" That's an odd phrase, as if the police had done them a particular favour. Also, why was the defence so anxious to keep a lid on it, to the extent of coughing to a crime that could be challenged? The defence solicitor, Jolyon Tuck said:
"I can say quite safely Mr Knowles has no comment to make."
Then this on Thursday 22 July:
Rodney Knowles, of Buckland Brake, Newton Abbot, was charged with a range of sexual offences against teenage girls.
He was accused of indecent assault against a teenager between 1977 to 1982; unlawful sexual intercourse with a teenager between 1984 and 1986, and the rape of a teenager between 1986 and 1988.
Appearing before Torbay magistrates, Knowles spoke only to give his address and date of birth, and was expressionless while the charges were read out. He submitted no plea and was remanded in custody to appear at Exeter Crown Court on Friday".There is no further reported news at this point.
[Update 9 Feb 2011. There is news now. Guilty. 20 years, at least 10 before eligible to apply for parole. H/T anon in the comments]