The Grauniad today is asking readers whether a six month prison sentence for stealing £3.50 of bottled water is disproportionate. The Guardian readership, displaying their usual tendency to take refuge in reaction when provoked, seem mostly to think this is a good thing, citing the fact that the guy doing the stealing was contributing to a pretty awful situation, making things worse, etc. etc.
For one brief moment i was tempted to join in. And then my own legal background re-asserted and i realised what a load of stupid and dangerous hogwash the magistrates were perpetrating.
You don’t send people to prison for six months for stealing £3.50 of goods. Period. And if you think you do, then a) you’re an ass and b) you are actively contributing to the undermining of UK law.
Huh? But…wasn’t this a very bad guy, who may not have done anything VERY wrong, but whose wrongdoing contributed to a night of terror for other people. Darn tooting!
But there are laws on the statute book already to deal with such circumstances. Once upon a time, we had a common law on riot which pretty much gave police and authorities carte blanche to deal with rioters. That included a right to use deadly force with no comeback on those employing it. All that was needed was for there to be 12 or more persons assembled for riotous purposes, for the riot act to be read, and for the authorities then to do what authorities do.
Luckily for those out this week, the common law has been replaced by statute (Public Order Act 1986). So the essentials of riot are still there – but the maximum sentence is ten years imprisonment.
Note carefully the wording of the law.
“Where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.”
That phrase “common purpose” also has legal pedigree… or form, as the crim fraternity might term it. Its the well-recognised doctrine that criminal liability adheres to ALL the participants to a criminal enterprise for ALL that results from that enterprise. So, if a bunch of people run riot and someone is killed, it is certainly quite possible for the CPS to contemplate charging not just the immediate perpetrators, but the whole mob, with murder.
Its controversial: common purpose cases have their detractors.
However, there is most certainly law – and laws – capable of dealing with the circumstances of earlier this week (just as existing law is quite capable of dealing with online incitement).
Should the guy have got six months? Quite probably, yes.
Should he have got six months for theft? Absolutely not.
The fact the courts did is an expression of laziness on their part: a desire by magistrates to take the riot element of the case as assumed, without the tedious necessity of proving it.