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Can a private individual collect his own 'fines' (or demand compensation) if he has evidence of wrongdoing, or does he have to pass that evidence to the authorities?

Scenario 1 - Lets say I own a small shop and I have clear, irrefutable video evidence of someone shoplifting. Lets pretend I know the shoplifter and I say to him 'pay me for the item, and pay me compensation or I give the video to the police' Maybe the shoplifter is just a 'good kid making a mistake' in which case he (or his parents) might welcome the chance to settle the matter privately without a police record to sully his character. Alternatively the shoplifter might be an incorrigible crook who knows he'll only get a slap on wrist and another line added to the bottom of a long criminal record.

On the one hand this is just a shopkeeper looking for just compensation, but on the other hand could this be seen as blackmail or demanding money with menaces?

Scenario 2 - Lets say I live in house next to a busy road with a 30mph speed limit. Let's pretend I'm kept awake all night by drivers speeding past at 60mph. I decide to install a speed camera (for the sake argument, lets assume it's the same type used by the police, professionally calibrated and installed on my own land). What would the legal position be if I wrote to the speeding drivers saying "compensate me for keeping me awake, or I pass my evidence of your offence to the police"

On the one hand these scenarios could be seen as a victim demanding compensation - but on the other hand it might be seen as blackmail, "give me money, or I give my evidence to the police". In both cases there is legitimate evidence of an offence, and in both cases the other person has a simple take-it-or-leave it choice. For many drivers a modest demand for private compensation might be preferable to points/large fine/banning/increased insurance costs etc etc.

How would the law look on these situations?

  1. honest victim legitimately asking for compensation? or
  2. smart crook blackmailing other crooks?
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  • 10
    First one sounds like blackmail once you add in the extra payment.
    – Joe W
    Mar 3 at 13:14
  • 1
    @Stephan Branczyk There is no basios or authoriry for a private person to charge such a "processing fee". Mar 3 at 14:42
  • 1
    Related: Doe v. Walmart Inc. (2019) (related news article).
    – Nat
    Mar 3 at 22:14
  • 3
    In the UK placing a fake speed camera by a roadside would be its own crime
    – Richard
    Mar 4 at 8:15
  • 1
    One narrow exception that might exist in some UK municipality is that sometimes local ordinances or even a national statute will expressly authorize property owners to impose fines in very narrow circumstances.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 4 at 20:51

2 Answers 2

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An individual has no authority or legal basis to demand a personal "fine" for a perceived offense. The actions in the two scenarios would both be blackmail. although whether they would be prosecuted is quite another question.

It would be reasonable for the shopkeeper to demand compensation for the lost merchandise. The offender (or the offender's parents) might offer to pay, either because they thought it the right thing, or in hopes to induce the shopkeeper not to call in the police. But if they specifically made "no police" a condition of payment, that would be bribery or attempted bribery.

The resident in scenario 2 could demand compensation for an alleged civil wrong of excessive noise, whether or not the passer-by was speeding. ote that the amount of noise made would not be directly related to the speed of any driver (although no doubt there would be some relation) and no one driver would be responsible for keeping the resident up.

I doubt that a civil suit, if pressed that far, would prevail, although it would depend on the factual details. The specific law of the local jurisdiction would also matter.

But the moment there is a threat to bring evidence of a possible crime to the police, and a request for money instead, that is blackmail.

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    I totally agree. Curious about something--what is the basis of business levying fines to their customers? Is it contracts that customers sign? Again I 100% agree with this answer about the question that was asked (IANAL).
    – bob
    Mar 3 at 21:37
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    Interesting. I know this is tagged UK, but here in Germany public transport companies regularly demand an "increased fee" (a fine in all but name) if they catch a free-rider.
    – henning
    Mar 3 at 22:09
  • @Bob companies cannot normally levy fines, they can collect fees for services rendered or damages for breech of contract. Public utilities and public transport companies like subways, buses and trams may have special rights, depending on the jurisdiction. In some places fare evasion is a minor crime and police may be called or conductor may have limited police powers. Contracts may not normally include "penalties" that is, fines. Mar 3 at 23:10
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    @DavidSiegel I think that is very country specific. Especially in Germany, but also Austria and Switzerland it is quite common to have penalties negotiated in contracts. For example in case a construction project takes longer than specified in the contract. And it seems like penalty clauses are legal in UK, too. See Cavendish Square Holding BV v Talal El Makdessi for example.
    – laolux
    Mar 4 at 5:56
  • @henning Due to the political climate, public transport is simply "above the law" in Germany though
    – towe
    Mar 4 at 6:47
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A way that companies give "fines" is by specifying a high charge, that is reduced to something reasonable if payment is prompt. So a car park operator may have a sign which states "Parking £100, unless you park within the lines, and 'pay and display', in which case the price is reduced to £1." A person who doesn't 'pay and display' then gets a demand for the full £100 in the post - probably along with threats of court action.

It looks like a fine of £100 that is charged for non-payment of the parking charge of £1. But it is couched in terms of a charge of £100 that is reduced.

Penalty fares on public transport work the same way. There is a nominal large fee that can be avoided by purchasing a ticket. However if the ticket inspector finds that you haven't bought a ticket, they can insist on the payment of the penalty fare, which is normally excessive.

That can't apply to your scenarios, as these involve crimes - There is no agreement that you have entered into with the shoplifter or the drivers to allow them to steal or speed in exchange for a large fee. And the threat "pay or it goes to the police" is blackmail.

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  • This is UK-specific, right? In Germany, buying no ticket when riding a bus or train is a crime and the law explicitly allows a transport service to demand payment of double fare or a prescribed amount, whichever is higher.
    – Trish
    Mar 4 at 8:00
  • In a UK rail related forum I use, there is a section for people who have been caught by ticket inspectors, where they can seek advice. They say things like "I was caught with an invalid ticket and the guy fined me £50" or "I was reported for an out of date ticket and now the rail company wants to fine me £200". Knowledgeable railfans tend to be pedants, and the invariable response is "It's a charge, not a fine. Only a court can issue a fine". Mar 4 at 8:51
  • "if the ticket inspector finds that you haven't bought a ticket, they can insist on the payment of the penalty fare, which is normally excessive." Penalty fares are for genuine mistakes, where deliberate evasion is not suspected, e.g. travelling at peak time with an off-peak ticket. Short-faring, or travelling without a ticket (which is an offence) are treated more severely. Mar 4 at 8:54
  • @MichaelHarvey - that has sort-of been my personal experience. I have occasionally travelled at peak times having left my season ticket at home; in that case I get issued a penalty fare along with instructions on how to claim it back from the rail operator (just send a copy of your season ticket, basically). I have seen other people without tickets on the same services issued with a caution and told the police will be involved. The difference? I was wearing a suit, they were scruffily-dressed. Seriously.
    – Spratty
    Mar 4 at 15:49
  • @Spratty "If you do not have your Season Ticket with you when you travel you must buy a ticket for your journey. You will be able to get a refund on the fare paid on the first two occasions this happens in any 12 month period. On the second such occasion an administration charge will be made ... . No more than two of these types of refund will be made in any 12 month period. You will need to hand in the tickets you have bought. You should make refund claims of this type within 28 days of travel." - National Rail season ticket conditions. You were lucky to get a penalty fare. Mar 4 at 18:36

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