Reasonable and unreasonable force

Two Yorkshire brothers—one a law-enforcement officer—fled to the sanctuary at Durham Cathedral when an arrest went wrong. Then, as now, the line between allowable and unreasonable force in arrests was controversial.

In May 1495, Christopher Easby of Ripon took along his brother William when he went to arrest John Dixson for an unspecified offence. Dixson resisted, so Christopher struck him on the shoulder with a bill or staff, inflicting a “great wound.” Dixson died from the blow, and both Christopher and William fled to Durham for sanctuary (William as accessory, as he was with Christopher when the fight broke out, although he emphasized that he had not taken part in the altercation).

It’s hard to know how the courts would have treated Christopher Easby’s case – he obviously thought it important to mention that he had been acting in an official capacity, but he also thought he was liable for a charge of homicide (and his brother as accessory). He obviously wasn’t sure that he’d be acquitted or pardoned, or he would not have sought asylum at Durham.

In another similar case of sanctuary-seeking for a death during arrest a couple of decades later, there was a charge of homicide, but then it was pardoned. Evidence of what happened to the Easbys is lacking, but quite possibly something similar would have happened. It’s interesting, though, that the default process for deaths inflicted by law enforcement was to treat it as a homicide, which is not (I believe) the case today, at least in Canada.

Maybe medievals had it right to have a less thorough subsumation of law enforcement into a hegemonic state, and a concomitant greater personal responsibility for the law enforcement officers. A fancy way to say that police brutality shouldn’t be consequence-free.

SDSB, 25-26; Fowler, “Sanctuary Records,” 311-12. Image: Getty Library.

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