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As pretty much anyone who's ever watched an English police procedural can attest to, English policemen use the phrase "you're nicked, sunshine!" whenever they apprehend a suspect.

However, anyone who's ever met a policeman in real life will tell you, nobody actually does this (anymore?). Where, then, does the phrase originate?

  • edit in your research if you please. – lbf Mar 17 '18 at 1:41
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    The 'nick' is slang for the Police Station. Wiktionary. – Nigel J Mar 17 '18 at 3:11
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    It's a bit of a sweeping statement to claim that police in dramas always use exactly that phrase! 'Nick' as a verb is slang for 'arrest', 'sunshine' is one possible way of addressing a stranger informally (Oxford Dictionaries online says 'friendly or sometimes threatening'), so it's something that might plausibly be said in those circumstances. – Kate Bunting Mar 17 '18 at 10:46
  • Criminals, at one stage, chose to deliberately repeat such well-worn expressions on arrest 'You've got me bang to rights, guv, I'm well and truly nicked'. When read out in court as a 'confession' it sounded so ridiculous that juries immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a false documentation by arresting police, thus causing juries to side with the criminal. – Nigel J Mar 17 '18 at 16:29
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    I’m sorry to say that’s like “Play it again, Sam…” Although many people are sure it is, it isn’t true at all. One or two might and pretty-much anyone who's actually watched an English police procedural will not have heard the phrase “You're nicked, Sunshine!" Equally, anyone who's met a policeman in real life will tell you he’d love to use that phrase but if he remembered, he dropped it from embarrassment. Beneath that, the phrase originates from one writer’s idea of something that sounded colloquial… If you mean which writer on what date, your guess is as good as anyone’s… – Robbie Goodwin Apr 8 '18 at 16:44
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I first encountered the expression "you're nicked" through the song "You're Nicked" (1982) by the UK reggae duo, Laurel & Hardy. In that song however, it is L&H who say "You're nicked," while the ersatz policeman in the recording can be heard saying things like "What have we here?" "Get in the back," "You know the way," and "We got you now." The closest the song gets to "sunshine" is a couple of instances where the policeman says, "What have we here, son?"


What the slang dictionaries say

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938) has this relevant material on slang use of nick in the sense of arrest:

nick. ... 2. To catch, esp[ecially] unawares : from ca. 1620. Fletcher & Massinger. In C. 20, occ[asionally] to get hold of, as in Galsworthy, The White Monkey, 1924, 'Wait here, darling; I'll nick a rickshaw.'—3. Hence, in C. 19–20, to arrest: low s[lang] or perhaps c[ant]. The Spirit of the Public Journals, 1806, 'He ... stands a chance of getting nicked, because he was found in bad company,' O.E.D.

According to Partridge, the related noun sense of nick came later:

nick. ... 8. (the nick.) A prison ('Stuart Wood', 1932); a police-station (Charles E. Leach, 1933) : c[ant] (from 1919). Prob. ex sense 3 of the v[erb], but imm[ediately] ex military s[lang] (from ca. 1910), the guard-room, detention-cells (F[raser] & Gibbons[, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases [1925]).

Jonathon Green, Slang Dictionary (2008) largely corroborates Partridge on these points:

nick n. ... 2 (orig[inally] Aus[tralian]) with ref[erence] to imprisonment, capture {milit[ary] use nick, the guard-room}. (a) {late 19C+) a prison. (b) {1910s+) a police station, esp[ecially] its cells. (c) {1950s} the police. (d) {1980s} an arrest. ... In phrases: on the nick {late 19C} taking into custody, arresting.

...

nick v. {Rom[any] thus note Caló nicabar, to steal; ? underpinned by S[tandard] E[nglish] nick, to catch, to seize, to take advantage of an opportunity; ult[imate] ety[mology] fig[urative] use of S[[tandard] E[nglish] nick to mark, i.e. to mark for oneself} 1 {mid-16C–19C} to win at gambling, orig[inally] dice or cards (esp[ecially] by cheating). 2 {17C+} to catch; take unawares; to 'get', to understand. 3 {17C+} (UK Und[erworld]) to rob, to steal. 4 {late 17C+) to cheat, to swindle. 5 {mid-18C+} to apprehend, to arrest. ...

As for sunshine, Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990) has this entry:

sunshine n 1 British a term of address. The word is used teasingly or provocatively, usually between males. It originated as an ironic reference to a morose person. ...


Early examples of 'nicked,' 'you're nicked,' and 'sunshine, you're nicked'

The 1806 example of "nicked" that Partridge cites is actually from 1805—from "A Dialogue Between Captain Bull and His Ship's Crew," in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1805 (1806). Here is a fuller version of that excerpt:

Near him is another, who seems to have too honest a face to belong to such a crew; we used, you know, to call him Jack the Commodore. I really am sorry for him, poor fellow; he is like the Magpie in the fable, and stands a chance of getting nicked, because he was found in bad company; however, he must take his chance with the rest, we cannot make fish of one and flesh of another.

The earliest relevant instance of "you're nicked" that a Google Books search turns up is from "Narrative of Law and Crime," in The Household Narrative of Current Events (June 1854), recounting a conversation between a man and a woman arrested on suspicion of picking pockets:

—Woman: Well, if we get a mooner (one month [sentence]), I'll make it all right with the screws (picklocks). If we'd a bloke (a solicitor), we should get off. You mind that I cracked to the peeler [policeman] that we'd been from St Alban's a week.—Man: You're a fool to crack anything. When you're nicked (taken up), never holler.

Instances of "you're nicked" in proximity to "sunshine" appear in Punch (1982) [combined snippets]:

PC Garsmold: Excuse me, sunshine, is this your vehicle?

...

PC Wisley: I charge you with taking away a lavatory with the intention of permanently depriving the rightful owner. You are nicked, son!

and in Clive Ensley, "Taking Stock of Crime," in The Historian, issues 42 (Summer 1994) [excerpt not shown in snippet window snippets]:

'Right sunshine, you're nicked!'


Conclusion

"Nicked" in the sense of arrested goes back to the middle 1700s, according to Jonathon Green, and the OED (cited by Eric Partridge) cites an instance of such usage from 1806. "you're nicked" appears as criminal can't in a trial record from 1954.

The addition of "sunshine" to the expression seems not to go back much farther than the early 1980s, and there are numerous instances of alternative phrases such as "you're nicked, mate" (from 1977), "you're nicked, you thieving little bastard" (1978), "you're nicked, son" (from 1982), "you're nicked, sonny" (1989), and "right, my lad, you're nicked" (1994).

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PREMISE: As I understand it, the OP is referring to the cliché “You're nicked ___” used several times in British dramas, comedy and TV police series. Whether real policemen ever said that or its variant “You've been nicked” while arresting a suspect is open for debate. It's plausible, especially if the person being caught red-handed was a familiar face to the police.

However, the ‘sunshine’ part in the catchphrase You're nicked sunshine is pretty much irrelevant. In mediocre British coppers (police) series and books, the epithet ‘sunshine’ could be substituted with "mate", "son", "lad", "Jack", etc. For example, here are two quotes pulled from Google Books: “He says right you're nicked mate”, and “Right, my lad, you're nicked!’

"Sunshine" is merely used as an ironic placeholder. The etymology for the verb sense "to be nicked" can be found in etymonline dictionary.

Sense of "to steal" is from 1869, probably from earlier slang sense of "to catch, take unawares, arrest" (1620s).

From a 1979 British report, Young people and the police, we can see how petty criminals or people falsely arrested, used nick in the slang sense of to arrest

  • (page 25) An easy target I haven't been thieving, doing jobs or anything, for about a year and hall now, but the things I've been nicked for in that time is drunk and disorderly, abusive language — stupid things

  • (page 28) The times I've been nicked, nicked for silly things, you know, and pulled up suspected of drugs and whatever, I think there's only been a I think there's only been a couple of times when they've told me my rights. The only reason they want to nick you is because they want to get off the streets themselves, they want to go into the pig shop and have a cup of tea. They can be in there for a couple of hours if they nick us.

  • Question — You said you got nicked for 'sus' — can you remember what happened?
    'We were walking down the road about one o'clock in the morning, and this bloke just came up to us and said you're nicked for trying car doors. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about — you know what I mean.

From a Police Service Journal, published in 1960

  • For arguments sake let us say there is two geezers and one has got done for a comparatively minor crime, stealing a bottel of milk off some ones door step, and the other geezer has got nicked for a serious crime like nicking a lorrie load of wiskey

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