Assault conviction quashed for man arrested for spilling water on police

The man's conviction was overturned after the court found that the events did not warrant the charges

What had initially been reported as an assault on the officer, appeared to have been accidental and not aggressive
What had initially been reported as an assault on the officer, appeared to have been accidental and not aggressive

A man who had been arrested after accidentally squirting a police officer with a water bottle has had his conviction for having assaulted a police officer overturned on appeal.

A court of magistrates had found Kieran Vella, 26, guilty of disobeying, insulting and attacking police officers, handing him a four-month prison sentence, suspended for one year. Vella had insisted that he had simply distractedly walked into the police officer in Paceville at around 4:30am on 21 December 2013. 

He had bumped into the officer, after a brief exchange of words, Vella had been escorted to a police van. The court noted that it was apparent that “some physical contact” between the accused and the officer had taken place on the way there.

Vella was alleged to have uttered insulting phrases to the officers at the St Julian's police station.

Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, presiding the Court of Criminal Appeal, noted that the court of first instance had chosen to believe the police's version of events, which was that Vella had bumped into a three-man police foot patrol by accident and had accused a police officer of bumping into him.

It had been alleged that Vella was unsteady on his feet, stank of alcohol and had squirted water from an open bottle that he had been carrying onto the officer's raincoat after the collision.

But Vella had given a different account of the night's events. He had popped into a shop to buy some water while walking home from Paceville with two of his friends. Vella had complied with the shopkeeper's request that he open the bottle and hand him the cap before leaving the shop.

As soon as he walked outside, while looking around to see where his friends were, he had bumped into a police officer. The shoulder to shoulder contact caused Vella to spill some water on the officer, who promptly told him that he needed to take him to the police station.

While walking towards the police van, one of the escorting officers had jokingly pulled his ear, as if to tell him off for misbehaving. Although the tug caused no pain, Vella had turned around to see what was wrong and at that point the officers forcefully subdued him, thinking that he was about to attack them.

The accused's companions had both testified that the accused had been looking backwards while taking to them when he had bumped into the officer and being immediately arrested.

Mr Justice Grixti noted that it should be kept in mind that the charges stemmed from what the first court had described as an “almost banal and infantile” incident. Had the accused apologised to the officer for the bottle incident, the story would probably have stopped there, the first court had said.

Although reluctant to disturb the court of first instance's appreciation of the facts, the court of Criminal Appeal said that the first court had not taken important factors into consideration.

The coming together that had initially been reported as an assault on the officer, appeared to have been accidental and not aggressive, caused by the intoxicated state of the accused. A woman police constable had testified to the appellant's friends having been reasonable and polite, not attempting to interfere during the arrest and asking permission to explain what had happened.

“Circumstances such as these certainly don't make it easy, not for the police to keep the peace without escalating, neither are they easy for those subjected to police control and much less for the court to decide after evaluating the acts and circumstances.”

“But in this case, events do not appear to have warranted the charges,” the court held, also noting that there was no evidence to support the charge of failing to obey legitimate orders.

The man's conviction was overturned.

Lawyer Veronique Dalli was defence counsel to Vella.