I do not pretend to have any legal expertise and you can read the opinions of someone who has over at @jackofkent's excellent blog.
The "facts" of the case (as reported)suggest that Mr Clarke found a shotgun and ammunition in his garden, took these items to his nearest police station, and handed them in. He was then arrested, charged with possession of a gun, convicted in court, and now faces five years in prison.
Now there are many reasons to suspect that the story I summarize above may not be the whole story, and, at the very least, may be incorrect in some of the details. Certainly, anyone who knows anything about almost anything that is reported in the newspapers will attest that the newspapers have got vital details wrong. If shy ten year old Priscilla breaks the record for winning coconuts on the tombola for the third year in a row at the local fête; the local rag will report that "Three year old Priscilla broke the tombola during her ten goes on the coconut shy". I have always presumed that this sort of thing happens because journalist take notes in shorthand, forget all about the original events, and then try to construct a story (using their own imaginations) from what is essentially a list of phonemes. Sometimes, of course, there are more sinister forces at work.
But let us suppose the Paul Clarke story is entirely true and as reported, and let us suppose that the authorities, in spite of all the mitigating circumstances, decided to press ahead with a case like this and apply the full rigour of the law. Within such a thought experiment, many of the concerns that have been raised in the comments on @jackofkent's blog (which we may be able to dismiss once we know the full facts of the actual case) raise their ugly heads and do, I submit, require a reasoned response.
These comments raise a general problem with the law that is rarely discussed: the problem that most people (myself included) simply do not know what the law is (in all sorts of areas).
Recently I found a purse full of money and credit cards on the ground in a car-park in a part of town where I could reasonably expect that the purse might quickly be discovered by someone with less integrity than I pretend to. I had my mobile phone on me so I rang one of the relevant banks (there were no phone/address details for the owner inside the purse). The bank recommended that I take the purse to the local police station - which I did. But suppose I have not had my mobile phone on me and I had been stopped by the police on my way to the station. Is there a risk that I could have been charged with possession of stolen property? I have no idea. Even though I had been following the advice of a bank, banks are not reliable sources of legal advice - or even financial advice (but let's leave that to one side). Even if I had rung the police first, we all know that the police themselves are not necessarily a reliable source of correct legal advice - as in this case where (again, if the press story is to be believed) a man was instructed by the police to walk the streets with a loaded gun.
If I found what appeared to be a quantity of drugs (say) in a children's playground and did not have a phone on me and could not see any passers by, should I take the drugs and hand them in at the nearest police station or leave them in situ while attempting to report my find. I think I am right in believing that (in a case like this) I should have a defence if found in possession of drugs. But I don't know for sure.
On the subject of drugs, I recently attended a drugs awareness talk at the school my kids attend. During the course of the evening, it became apparent that the vast majority of the attendees had absolutely no idea what the laws were concerning the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco by minors in different environments let alone what the laws were concerning illicit (though not necessarily illegal) drugs. And these were educated (often highly educated) grown-ups.
Given that we expect laws to serve as a deterrent and given that politicians are forever making new laws (often to "send a message") I think we, as a society, need to be aware that the messages are often not getting though. I realize that ignorance of the law could never be allowed to stand as a defence argument (for obvious reasons) but this does not absolve the people who make our laws from responsibility to use the historically unparalleled opportunities for the dissemination of information to educate people as to what the laws are and are intended to achieve.
Suppose I found a loaded gun in a park frequented by children (though deserted at the time of my discovery) and did not have my mobile phone on me. What should I do? Leave it there? Hide it? Take it to the police and rely on the good will of the CPS?
I did not know the answers to these questions before the Clarke case and I don't know them now.
Allen Green ("@jackofkent") has carried out some sterling investigation and research on this story and written up his conclusions in a cracking blog entry at: Anatomy of an Injustice.
As I have also mentioned below (in a comment), pace my light-hearted digs at the quality of a great deal of journalism, I have every reason to believe that Holly Thompson's piece (which broke this story) is an accurate and balanced report of the facts available to that journalist and that that Holly Thompson (@h_thompson) is a journalist of integrity.