Abstracting electricity on a train may get you arrested

Beware! Charging your iPhone on a train may get you arrested!

It’s something iPhone users have long complained about: short battery life. It was even lampooned in an ad for Samsung’s Galaxy S5 last year. And it’s not unusual to go out somewhere – a cafe, the gym, an airport, the bathroom, anywhere with electricity and a vacant power socket – and not find an iPhone user plugged in, so to speak.

Just maybe don’t do it on trains in London, because you’ll probably get arrested. Just ask Robin Lee, a British artist who was travelling to Camden Road in London, who was using a powerpoint on the train to charge his iPhone when he was arrested by the British Transport Police for “abstracting electricity”.

Wait, what the? Abstracting electricity?

Yes, abstracting electricity, a legit, albeit obscure, statutory offence that exists in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In England, abstracting electricity is an offence under the Theft Act of 1968, which describes it as:

A person who dishonestly uses without due authority, or dishonestly causes to be wasted or diverted, any electricity shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

The Act made this special provision for the dishonest use of electricity to target people “who tamper with metering equipment, either by reconnecting the supply without authority, or interfering with the operation of the metre so that it does not fully record the amount of electricity consumed”.

So what does the Act really mean? 

The key word, here, is ‘dishonesty’, which, in this case, means using electricity when you know you’re not entitled to it. In law, dishonesty has two parts to it:

  1. Would the ordinary person in the street think you were being dishonest?
  2. And would you release that the ordinary person in the street would think you were being dishonest?

If you were asked to stop and you didn’t, then it’s likely that you could be found to be acting dishonestly. But the other important part to consider is “due authority”. If you asked someone who worked on the train, in good faith, if you could use the powerpoint, then you could probably claim the “due authority” defence.

But, if there was a sign saying ‘no public use’ then you don’t have due authority, and while it’s unlikely you could be arrested for abstracting electricity, it could happen – as it did for Robin Lee. Fortunately for Lee, however, when he was brought down to the police station the officers there realised that it was a fairly ridiculous charge and he was set free.

Leave Britain’s electricity alone!

But it’s not the first time the Brits have been diligent in protecting their electricity from dishonest use; there are three cases of people being prosecuted and convicted of abstracting electricity, the most recent of which occurred in 1992, when another person was charged in almost identical circumstances as Lee: for abstracting electricity in a railway station in Merseyside, in North West England.

So if you live anywhere in the UK – or you’re just visiting – and you’re tempted to plug into a free power outlet to give your iPhone some much needed juice, maybe don’t. Switch to a Samsung instead, or try to make yourself a phone charger using the inner sole of your shoe; just don’t go abstracting electricity!

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