Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Facebook riot calls earn men four-year jail terms amid sentencing outcry

Aug. 16, 2011 Guardian

Sentences handed out in Chester as lawyers and civil rights groups express
alarm about 'disproportionate' punishments

Two men who posted messages on Facebook inciting other people to riot in
their home towns have both been sentenced to four years in prison by a
judge at Chester crown court.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, set up an "event" called Smash Down in Northwich
Town for the night of 8 August on the social networking site but no one
apart from the police, who were monitoring the page, turned up at the
pre-arranged meeting point outside a McDonalds restaurant. Blackshaw was
promptly arrested.

Perry Sutcliffe, 22, of Latchford, Warrington, used his Facebook account
in the early hours of 9 August to design a web page entitled The
Warrington Riots. The court was told it caused a wave of panic in the
town. When he woke up the following morning with a hangover, he removed
the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. His message was
distributed to 400 Facebook contacts, but no rioting broke out as a

Sentencing Blackshaw to four years in a young offenders institution, Judge
Elgan Edwards QC said he had committed an "evil act". He said: "This
happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation. Your
conduct was quite disgraceful and the title of the message you posted on
Facebook chills the blood.

"You sought to take advantage of crime elsewhere and transpose it to the
peaceful streets of Northwich. The idea revolted many right thinking
members of society. No one actually turned up due to the prompt and
efficient actions of police in using modern policing."

Sutcliffe, the judge said, "caused a very real panic" and "put a very
considerable strain on police resources in Warrington". He praised
Cheshire police for their "modern and clever policy" of infiltrating the

The heavy sentences came as defence lawyers and civil rights groups have
criticised the "disproportionate" sentences imposed on some convicted
rioters as the latest official figures show nearly 1,300 suspects have
been brought before the courts.

The revelation that magistrates were advised by justices' clerks to
disregard normal sentencing guidelines when dealing with riot-related
cases alarmed a number of lawyers who warn it will trigger a spate of

Also on Tuesday, a looter was warned he could be jailed for helping
himself to an ice-cream cone during disturbances.

Anderson Fernandes, 22, appeared before magistrates in Manchester charged
with burglary after he took two scoops of coffee ice-cream and a cone from
Patisserie Valerie in the city centre. He gave the cone away because he
didn't like the flavour.

Fernandes admitted burglary in relation to the ice-cream and an
unconnected charge of handling stolen goods after a vacuum cleaner was
recovered from his home. District judge Jonathan Taaffe said: "I have a
public duty to deal swiftly and harshly with matters of this nature."
Fernandes will be sentenced next week.

In sentencing four other convicted Manchester rioters, a crown court
judge, Andrew Gilbert QC, made clear why he was disregarding sentencing
guidelines when he said "the offences of the night of 9 August ... takes
them completely outside the usual context of criminality".

He added: "The principal purpose is that the courts should show that
outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with
sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in
isolation. For those reasons, I consider that the sentencing guidelines
for specific offences are of much less weight in the context of the
current case, and can properly be departed from."

The Ministry of Justice's latest estimate, at midday on Tuesday, shows the
courts have dealt with 1,277 alleged offenders of whom more than 700 have
been remanded in custody. Two-thirds of the cases were in London.

By midday on Monday, 115 people had been convicted; more than
three-quarters of those were adults. About 21% of those appearing before
the courts have been juveniles. The proportion of alleged youth offenders
was higher in Nottingham, Birmingham and Manchester. "Everyone involved
with the courts and prison service has put in a huge effort to make that
possible and that work will continue."

But doubts are now being expressed about the fairness of some sentences.
For example, one student has been jailed for six months for stealing a
bottle of water from a supermarket.

Sally Ireland, policy director of the law reform organisation Justice,
said: "The circumstances of public disorder should be treated as an
aggravating factor and one would expect that to push up sentences by a
degree, but not by as far as some of the cases we have seen.

"Some instances are completely out of all proportion. There will be a
flurry of appeals although, by the time they have been heard, those
sentences may already have been served.

" There's a question about this advice [from justices' clerks] and whether
it should have been issued at all. We would expect them to be giving
advice [to magistrates] in individual cases rather than following a
general directive."

Rakesh Bhasin, a solicitor partner at the law firm Steel & Shamash, which
represents some of those charged following the riots, said some reported
sentences seemed to be "disproportionate".

Paul Mendelle QC, a former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said:
"The idea that the rulebook goes out the window strikes me as inherently
unjust. It sets all manner of alarm bells ringing. Guidelines are not
tramlines. There are guidelines and they take account of aggravating and
mitigating circumstances.

"There have been rulings following the Bradford riots and Israeli embassy
demonstrations that said which sort of guidelines should be followed. I
don't see why [magistrates] should be told to disregard these."

The judiciary and the MoJ have denied that they were involved in
circulating the advice to justices' clerk last week.

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