Guilty as charged

England & Belgium

1995

I will never forget that summer’s morning when my secretary entered my office and closed the door.  She looked quite concerned.

‘Len, there’s a police sergeant downstairs in reception and he has asked to speak to you.  I have tried to find out what it is about, but he insists that he can only discuss the matter with you.  I have seated him in the small conference room’.

‘Hmmm, it sounds like somebody is in trouble.  I can’t imagine that it is me’

But it was.

The sergeant informed me that the Belgian authorities wanted to prosecute me for driving at excessive speeds on the E411 from Luxembourg to Brussels and the E42 from Namur, east to the Belgian/French border.  Apparently my car had been caught several times by unmanned radar traps.

He showed me the thick file of documentation that the Belgians had forwarded to Scotland Yard, and it had been delegated to him to investigate the case.

‘At what speed would you normally drive on those roads’ he asked.

‘Oh, probably a little over the speed limit, if the roads were dry, it was light and there was no traffic.  I normally drive later, when the roads are more or less empty’.

‘Do you know what the speed limit is for Belgium’.

‘130 km/hour?

‘No, it is 120 km/hour, and you were caught at speeds very much in excess of that.

‘Hmmm, what happens now?

‘I will return with a colleague, tomorrow if it will be convenient for you, and we will take a formal statement from you.  We will send that off to Brussels, and it is up to the Belgians as to what happens then.  As they have gone to a lot of trouble to track you down, I don’t imagine that they will drop the case.  They will probably summons you to appear in a Belgian court.  You can of course decide to ignore the summons, in which case they may seek your extradition, and if you are found guilty, the penalties could be quite severe.’

And so next day the sergeant returned at the appointed time, accompanied by a constable.  They told me that I had the right to remain silent, a condition that rarely applies to me.  The constable documented everything, I signed the statement and that was that.

It never occurred to me at the time, to ask how they had traced me directly to my office.  The car and the owner can be obtained from the government vehicle registry.  I guessed that there must exist a tax file giving each taxpayer’s business address.

Time passed, I heard nothing more, and I assumed that the case was forgotten.  I still drove in Belgium, but not so often, and I tried to make sure that I was always within the speed limit.  Belgian colleagues had told me that, if I committed no further traffic offences in Belgium during three years, the old offences were not taken into account, but to be very careful in the meantime.

In 1998, when I was then managing a Swiss company, based in Neuchätel, I drove north through France to Luxembourg, and next day continued on.  On the way past Arlon, just after the Luxembourg/France border, I spotted a police car sitting partially hidden in a lay-by.  I instantly checked my speed and to my dismay, I was driving at over 150 km/hour.  On an empty road in a good car, it does not feel like it is very fast.

I slowed down to 120 km/hour.  I could see no obvious threat in the rear mirror and started to relax. And then I spotted the flashing light far back.  It soon came up beside me and the driver signalled for me to pull over to the shoulder.

Both policemen got out of their car and one of them came over to my window and demanded my papers – passport, insurance and ownership documentation.  He then went back to his car and I could see that he was using his radio, presumably checking everything with his base.  In the meantime, the other policeman stood watching me.

I admit that I was desperately trying to remember how long it had been since my previous ‘experience’ with the Belgian police.  I thought that it must have been at least three years, but from which date did the three-year period start?  If I was still ‘active’ in the Belgian database, I was in trouble.

After an interminable wait, the policemen hung up his radio and came back to my car.

‘On my radar, I recorded you driving at *** km/hour, ** km/hour in excess of the speed limit, and therefore I am authorized to issue you with a fine of €***.  You can either pay the fine now, or you can follow me to the nearest police station.’

It was rather a large amount to – the fines in Belgium, as in most countries, are not linear, but exponential.

‘I don’t have that much in cash.  Can I pay with a credit card?’

‘Certainly sir, that is not a problem’

So I produced my credit card, the policeman recorded all the details, I signed the payment, and I was free to drive on.

I felt so relieved that my previous speeding offences had not surfaced.  I felt like a criminal who had been acquitted by the judge, for lack of evidence.

And I have been on my best behavior ever since.