Reading The Riot Act

Riots or violent disturbances of the peace are part of the human psyche. As early as 44 B.C., when the Roman mobs attacked the houses of Brutus and Cassius in an angry response to the untimely death of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, the world has since experienced riots in every era. Riots occur for a multitude of reasons: from student protest as in the 1229 University of Paris students’ strike to revolution as in the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and from the various race riots in the United States throughout the 1900’s to the obscure reason of advant-garde music, when in 1913 the audience in the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées listening to the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet broke out in a violent booing frenzy. There have been riots over various alcoholic beverages as in the London Gin Riots of 1743 or the Beer Riots in Bavaria in 1844 or then only ten years later, the Portland Rum Riot. Sadly, I missed the Champagne Riot in 1911 France. However, increasingly, riots are not about protest but about a lack of sportsmanship or too much sportsmanship as in the case of the recent hockey related riots in Canada.

The Stanley Cup Riots, and I use the plural as there has been more than one (two in Vancouver, five in Montreal, one in Edmonton during playoffs), have been particularly egregious, costing the municipalities millions of dollars in damaged property and even millions more in prosecuting and punishing the participants. The Nika Riot of AD 532 might have been the first sports related riot, happening in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, then the centre of the remaining Roman Empire in the East. The two factions, Blue and Green, were supporting their chosen chariot race teams when both sides demanded the city release Blue and Green prisoners, who had been arrested, earlier, for disturbing the peace. In a moment, this sporting event became political and over the next few days a not unfamiliar scene played out as the Emperor Justinian first apologized and, when the mob was still not pacified, then slaughtered thirty thousand Blue and Greens in the Hippodrome. Ironically, it was Justinian who codified all Imperial laws into the Codex. See my previous posting on the codification of our criminal laws into the Criminal Code.

Although we no longer “read the riot act,” as they no doubt did in 18th Century England when the Riot Act was first enacted, our criminal law does prohibit “unlawful assemblies and riots” under the Criminal Code. The 1715 Riot Act gave a Justice of the Peace or another person so authorized to disperse “groups of twelve people or more being unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace” upon proclaiming:

Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

If the crowd did not disperse within an hour of this proclamation, the authorities had the right to “seize and apprehend” the rabble-rousers who would be subject to the death penalty.

Although the Riot Act was finally repealed in 1973, the Canadian offences of unlawful assembly and riot, under sections 63 and 64 of the Criminal Code respectively, are a distant reminder of the original crime. Instead of twelve people “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously” assembled, the Canadian counterpart, unlawful assembly under s. 63, requires three or more persons “with intent to carry out any common purpose” who:

cause persons in the neighbourhood of the assembly to fear, on reasonable grounds, that they

(a) will disturb the peace tumultuously; or

(b) will by that assembly needlessly and without reasonable cause provoke other persons to disturb the peace tumultuously.

Similarly, section 64, defines the offence of riot as an unlawful assembly, presumably as per s.63, “that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously.” Therefore, an unlawful assembly is about to become a riot, although not quite there, while a riot is exactly that: a full-blown tumultuous affair.

The defining term for these offences, in both the Criminal Code offence and the 1715 original crime, is the word “tumultuously.” To understand the meaning of this word, which is not defined in the Criminal Code, case law is needed. In the Berntt case, arising from the first Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot in 1994, at issue was the clarity of the meaning of the word “tumultuously” as found in s.64.

Defence argued the term was vague and therefore did not provide a clear understanding of the essential requirements of the crime. Without such clarity, defence argued, the accused’s ability to make full answer and defence was compromised. To try an individual on the basis of a vague law and, therefore, to potentially deprive the individual of his or her liberty if convicted would be contrary to the principles of fundamental justice under s.7 of the Charter.

The British Columbia Court of Appeal, in deciding the issue, referred to the 1992 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Nova Scotia Pharmaceutical Society and Justice Gonthier’s comments on the importance of limits, provided by clear language, which delineate our laws and permit legal debate. However, language provides boundaries only and are mere guidelines as stated by Justice Gonthier in the following passage:

Semantic arguments, based on a perception of language as an unequivocal medium, are unrealistic.  Language is not the exact tool some may think it is.  It cannot be argued that an enactment can and must provide enough guidance to predict the legal consequences of any given course of conduct in advance.  All it can do is enunciate some boundaries, which create an area of risk.  But it is inherent to our legal system that some conduct will fall along the boundaries of the area of risk; no definite prediction can then be made.  Guidance, not direction, of conduct is a more realistic objective. 

With guidelines comes context and in the end, the court found the word “tumultuously” must be read in conjunction with the other words used in the offence such as “riot” and “unlawful assembly,” which connotes a violent disturbance as opposed to an uproarious, perhaps even jubilant, crowd. History also imbued the term with particular meaning as the crimes, through their very definition, related back to old England and the Riot Act.

Thus, as they say, what goes around comes around and what was once a crime is still a crime. Interestingly, the discussion of boundaries and limits is exactly what the crimes of unlawful assembly and riot are all about: it is the lack of boundaries and limits that marks the behaviour as crimes as opposed to a Canada Day event on Parliament Hill where the crowd gathers in celebration and bon ami.

Sadly, as a coda to this posting, Ryan Berntt, the accused in question, was shot in the head by a police officer’s rubber bullet during the riot and sustained brain damage. In the end, it is individuals, both in the crowd and out of the crowd, who suffer the most. It is the individuals, not the crowd, who stand charged or must face the inevitable morning-after clean up. Perhaps this sobering reality is worth remembering.