Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Head of Humberside Police wonders why justice isn't normally so swift

I read an article in The Independent today that quoted Tim Hollis, Chief Constable of Humberside Police. In the wake of the worst riots the UK has seen in decades, he had this to say:
"We really did see rapid and robust justice with offenders being arrested, charged, put before the courts and sentenced in days.

"This undoubtedly contributed to taking the momentum out of the disorder - but for the police and public it did raise the question as to why cases take so long to get to court in the normal course of events."
If Mr. Hollis doesn't mind terribly, I'd like to take that one. Although defendants have a right to a speedy trial, they also need time to prepare an adequate defence. In fact, they need time to consider a defence. Defendants are innocent until they have been proven guilty as a result of a legal process that does not benefit from being rushed. The swift justice we've seen following the UK riots has impeded some people's abilities to defend themselves properly. This is dangerous and should absolutely never be the norm.

In some cases we saw defendants hauled before the magistrates within a couple days of being charged. People who used social media to comment ironically on the riots were accused of committing the serious crime of incitement. One 17 year old young man was charged with an offence under the infamous section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending a menacing message via a public electronic communications network for a Facebook update and subsequent conversation that resulted in the offending message being deleted after 20 minutes. Had there been more than two days between the charge and the hearing, he might have come to realize that he did not have to enter a guilty plea. That the message was menacing in its context was not disputed. That the defendant had an awareness of this was also not disputed. There was no time to consider an adequate defence.

Hollis then questions "why imprisonment is not used more effectively at an early stage for those who make the lives of the law-abiding a misery on a more routine basis". Again, a person is law-abiding until proven otherwise. This is true even of people who have offended in the past. It's the job of the magistrates and professional judiciary to determine whether bail should be granted. They follow guidelines. I'm sure police would like to see speedier justice in most cases. It makes their jobs easier. However, that's not what justice is for. The administration of justice is designed to protect the innocent, first and foremost. That's every man woman and child, regardless of suspicion or evidence, until the justice system pronounces a verdict. Punishing and rehabilitating the guilty comes second and by a long way. Perhaps Hollis is commenting on the failure of custodial punishment to serve as a deterrent. I can't quite tell what he's trying to say.

To be fair to Chief Constable Hollis, here is the piece he wrote in the Yorkshire Post today that was quoted by The Indy. It is not a bad piece. The tone is overall positive and I agree with much of what he has to say. Unfortunately, his paragraph fourteen ruins it for me. If the swift administration of justice served to take the momentum out of the riots, as he suggests, then I suppose it went some way toward fulfilling the primary duties of the police and the courts to protect the innocent. It was unfortunately full of errors and there are many successful appeals expected. There has already been one successful appeal overturning a custodial sentence. This should never be considered business as usual. That would be arsehole justice.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shy 19 year old woman of good character could go to prison. LMFAO!

If you've read some of our recent posts then you may be familiar with the case of 19 year old Hollie Bentley from Wakefield, West Yorkshire. You may have also read or heard about the case in the news. If you did, then you would not have seen what is perhaps the most crucial piece of evidence in the case. The papers have been reporting that Bentley wrote the text "Who's up for it?" in some way referencing a Facebook event she'd created called "Wakey Riots". What the papers are not reporting for some reason is that at the end or her offending remark, she wrote "LMFAO". In case anyone is unaware of this particular text-speak, LMFAO is shorthand for "laughing my fucking arse off". The only place I've seen this reported is here, and that's only because the author was at the hearing and heard the evidence read out.

I don't know why news outlets would choose not to print that little nugget, but I do know it adds nuance to the story. Here's what LMFAO means to me in this context. Hollie Bentley believes, quite rightly I suspect, that the notion of a riot on the high street of Wakefield, West Yorkshire is absurd. That's the crux of the joke right there. It may have other hidden meaning. For example, it is boldly laughing at a prospect that is terrifying, which is a sort of affected bravado. I suppose we'll have to ask Hollie Bentley what she meant when she wrote that. She should do a little soul searching and think carefully about the answer. Her personal liberty depends on it. LMFAO! :(

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Social media turns everybody into wankers.

Social media turns everybody into wankers.

It's as simple as that. As soon as anybody gets involved in social media, they immediately turn into hopeless, irretrievable dickheads. They lose about 50 IQ points, and begin delivering the most ill considered and moronic opinions.

I can give you some examples from my current favourite social network, Twitter:

Duncan Bannatyne famously called another user a (sic) "pheadophile" for daring to suggest that smoking in one's car with one's children in it isn't the worst crime known to man. This is an intelligent, successful man. Something's gone wrong in his brain there. Surely?

And what about Tory councillor Gareth Compton who posted:

"Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really."

Honestly. What a wanker.

Or Paul Chambers

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Blowing up the airport isn't going to help your flight to leave on time, is it, you dozy twat?


And then there's me. Earlier today, one of my Twitter followers asked me for advice on how to stop his son picking at his skin all the time.

I suggested that his son take up smoking.

I am a dickhead. It's right there in black and white on Twitter if you need the evidence.

But. Has any of the above really done anybody any harm? There might be one or two bruised egos, or offended Twitter friends (sorry Adrian!) - but nobody actually died, right? Nobody got hurt? Sticks and stones, and all that.

We're currently looking at a whole bunch of prosecutions brought against other social media users who posted some really dumb shit on Facebook in response to the riots. In EVERY SINGLE CASE so far, nobody actually got hurt as a result of their stupid posts, and no crimes were committed as a result of those posts. In the majority of cases so far, it's pretty clear that the poster was making a bad joke.

So we're perhaps just looking at another collection of social media wankers who happened to stray into the firing line of a political hot potato.

But the point is: their conversation isn't any different to the content posted by 90% of the social media users out there. As a social media user, we see content like this, and we say to ourselves, "Oh, just another wanker like me".

And now the judicial system is weighing in on social media, and as soon as they've got involved, they've become wankers too. They've lost 50 IQ points, and started talking just as much bollocks as the rest of us.

So the obvious defence to anybody faced with a charge under the Serious Crimes Act or the Communications Act in the coming weeks is:

"Social media turned me into a wanker. And now it's turning you into a wanker as well. Your honour."

Apologies for linking riot cases to #TwitterJokeTrial and #IAmSpartacus

I must apologise to the Paul Chambers defence for the use of some hashtags in my attempt to raise the profile of some post riot Facebook cases. It had not occurred to me that linking these events could damage Paul's case; however, it has been pointed out that this is a possibility. Winning the Paul Chambers appeal is the most important thing right now. It may help to quash these other convictions, even those under the Serious Crime Act. I have two motivations for raising the profile of these other cases: 1) people are going to prison, and that's hard; 2) to my mind, each new conviction that goes unchallenged increases public acceptance. Nevertheless, I shall now respectfully refrain from using the #TwitterJokeTrial and #IAmSpartacus hashtags to advertise these cases. Please follow suit.

Hollie Bentley (Facebook Riot Girl) - case referred to Crown Court

The AJs just keep on rolling in. Today at Wakefield Magistrate's Court in West Yorkshire, a young woman named Hollie Bentley was told that her charge under the Serious Crimes Act would be heard before the Crown Court. On the 9th of August (why do all these seem to be from the same day?), the 19 year old allegedly created a Facebook event called "Wakey Riots" set to take place over the 13th and 14th of August and referred to it either in the description or on the event wall with the text "Who's up for it LMFAO." Clearly a joke. It was nice of her to schedule the riots at the weekend. Very convenient. There were of course no riots in Wakefield. Ms Bentley has yet to enter a plea. A skeletal news story on the BBC web site suggests she has not admitted to performing the act of which she is accused.

My friend Matt Bradley was at the hearing and he has provided this write up: http://www.pitkanary.com/2011/08/24/hollie-bentley-at-wakefield-magistrates-court/. I am bemused. As reported earlier, David Glyn Jones, of Glasinfryn, Bangor, Gwynedd created a similar Facebook event and was charged not under the provisions of the Serious Crime Act but under the much less serious provisions of the Communications Act 2003. Setting all the difficulties with the Communications Act aside, I am at a loss to understand how the CPS felt they satisfied the evidential stage of the Full Code Test with this case. The relevant Serious Crime Act provisions (sections 44-46) impose a significant burden to prove intent, as befits the seriousness of the crimes. I think it would be quite difficult to prove intent here. Nevertheless, it seems the evidential stage has been made out, as a magistrate has referred the matter on. The magistrate stresses the seriousness of the charge, saying "people died in the riots." This is true; however, it is also quite immaterial. The clear intention to incite a riot must be proven. It is not enough that a serious disturbance is a foreseeable consequence of such actions. One wonders whether this would have been referred to the Crown Court had Ms Bentley entered a plea of not guilty.

On the matter of the Serious Crime Act versus the Communications Act, Matt Bradley suggests that the difference may come down to the setting of a place and date for a disturbance to occur, which is the sort of functionality that a Facebook event provides. It's possible that Glyn Jones' story has been misreported and instead of an event, he chose a page or a simple wall post. If this is the distinction that the CPS are making when charging with a serious crime, then it is at best extremely naive. A riot is an event, quite clearly. When a young lady (or man) sees events going on around or near her that are frightening and hard to believe, she might deal with those events by making a joke out of them in order to make them seem less scary and regain a sense of control. If I were to act out in this way on Facebook, I do believe that I would use an event as it is the most apt tool for the job. And of course, the event encourages (or perhaps even forces) one to set a date, place and time. Hollie Bentley almost certainly did create the Facebook event that has gotten her into so much trouble. She also quite clearly meant it as a joke. For goodness sake, she wrote "LMFAO"! How many more of these miscarriages of justice will we sit here and watch as they are handed down? I am not in any position to give anyone legal advice, but it seems to me that Hollie Bentley had better plead not guilty, or else she will be laughing her effing arse off in prison for sure.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another Facebook related Communications Act conviction. North Wales

I will depart from cynicism just to say that I've never been more afraid for the health of free expression in Britain. This post is on the long side, but I urge you to read it fully as it explains many of the problems encountered with the application of the Communications Act to broadcast style internet communications. A 21 year old man has been convicted in North Wales of an offence under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and sentenced to 4 months in prison for a Facebook update that was live for 20 minutes. It has been reported here <http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/08/23/man-jailed-for-four-months-over-facebook-attempt-to-start-riots-in-bangor-91466-29288008/> and here <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-14631184>. I have sent a query to CPS Wales seeking information about the nature of the prosecution.

Unfortunately in this case it seems that someone (a former coworker) was concerned and notified her supervisor. Former coworker? Notified her supervisor? I don't get it. Perhaps there's a grudge. At any rate, that would serve as evidence that someone was menaced; however, the Communications Act 2003 s127 does not require that any person is actually menaced (or grossly offended, etc). It does not require that a message is even received. This is through a precedent that has required the prosecution in the Twitter Joke Trial to discharge a narrow burden of proof of intent to commit the offence. The precedent comes from a case before the House of Lords in 2006 called DPP v Collins, which dealt with nuisance telephone calls and voice messages. Section 127 of the Communications Act is unfortunately badly worded, in that in and of itself there is no burden of proof of intent, hence the reliance on case law. Unfortunately the remarks of one of the Law Lords has set a very low threshold for proving mens rea (guilty mind, intent). I explain this in a post from February which I quote below:

DPP v Collins sets out a low threshold for both the actus reus and the mens rea. The act is committed so long as a qualifying message is sent via a qualifying public electronic communications network. It does not matter whether the message actually elicits the reaction in a recipient of being regarded as grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. It would not matter in fact that the message is not received by anyone at all, except insofar as it is reported to the relevant authorities. The act of sending is sufficient. For mens rea, the Lords have also defined a strangely low threshold. While the Lords recognise that it is essential to examine any message within the context of a fair and just multi-racial society and to recognize that the meaning of a message can be quite different from its literal content, it is only necessary that the sender at the very least be aware that the message is couched in terms likely to be regarded as grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.
So unfortunately while DPP v Collins provides the necessary burden to prove intent, it severely scuppers the defence by removing the requirement that a message is actually received. It sets out the need to look at a message in context, but this is of little help as it has been interpreted very broadly. It requires mens rea, but only in a very narrow sense. Paragraph 11 of Lord Bingham's opinion is where we get into trouble:

"...On the other hand, a culpable state of mind will
ordinarily be found where a message is couched in terms showing an
intention to insult those to whom the message relates or giving rise to
the inference that a risk of doing so must have been recognised by the
sender. The same will be true where facts known to the sender of a
message about an intended recipient render the message peculiarly
offensive to that recipient, or likely to be so, whether or not the message
in fact reaches the recipient...."

Now, this intuition may have made sense where the facts of the case concern a telephone call or voice message, the difference being that the communication is one-to-one and there is a recipient in mind. It is however completely inappropriate when applied to broadcast style messaging as it works in internet social media, which is more like publishing. There's a lot more I could say about this, but I've said it all before. It only takes a bit of time examining the implications to see how dangerous this law is, how chilling to online free speech. People are committing "crimes" that they are not even aware of. Remarks that would be fine if made down the pub are prosecuted when published on Facebook or Twitter. Although it has yet to happen, similar remarks within a blog entry would also fall prey to this law. This has to stop. It is my mission and I won't rest until the Communications Act can no longer be used to dispense Arsehole Justice.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Speedy prosecution of Facebook teen means no time for decent defence

I am so angry about this that I don't even know where to start, so I'll just start. I may need to actually restrain myself. *Deep breaths* A case was brought before the Magistrates Court in Bury St. Edmunds, West Suffolk last week concerning a 17 year old boy who posted an update to Facebook that has been viewed as an invitation to start riots. I knew about this case when I saw it written up in the Guardian a few days ago after sentencing. The sentence was a 12 month ban from all social media and some other non-custodial terms. What was not immediately apparent to me when I read that article was that the youth was charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending a menacing message. This is the same charge under which Paul Chambers was convicted and which he is still appealing in what has become known as the Twitter Joke Trial.

The Twitter Joke Trial was a real "red pill" moment for me. The police and prosecution handling of the case was so obviously misguided to me that I couldn't help but speak up. I have been an early campaigner to have the charges dropped and then to have the judgement overturned. I am now a self professed civil libertarian with a particular interest in free speech. It is sometimes difficult to communicate to people the dangers that cases like Paul Chambers' place us all in. Difficult, because people often can't see beyond the facts of the case at hand. I'll delve into the Twitter Joke Trial more in another post. That's not what this one is about.

Here is an article I found today about the Bury St. Edmunds case as it was written up locally after the initial hearing adjourned pre-sentencing. Read it and try not to weep: http://www.eadt.co.uk/news/west_suffolk_facebook_riot_teen_was_idiot_1_991897

From this article I learned that the charge was under the Communications Act 2003, section 127, which deals with the improper use of public electronic communications networks. I don't know why the Serious Crime Act 2007 was not wheeled out like it was in other similar cases after the UK Riots. Perhaps this was felt to be inappropriate when dealing with a minor. Perhaps it was the extenuating circumstances that made this charge seem inappropriate. Here are the circumstances:

On Tuesday morning, the 9th of August, this 17 year old boy posted the following update on Facebook - "I think we should start rioting. It’s about time we stopped the authorities pushing us about and ruining this country. I think it’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once so come on rioters, get some. LOL" Note that the local article omits the "LOL" at the end, which I feel is important. This followed several nights of rioting in London.

At some point in the day, the teen's update was met with comments from "friends", some of whom suggested that the update was foolish and that the author was an "idiot". A brief debate ensued in which the teen mentioned the Duggan shooting in Tottenham and abuses of police power. The result of the discussion was that the teen admitted that his remarks were "stupid" and then deleted his post.

Here's what the prosecutor, Sarah-Jane Atkins, had to say. These are some of the dumbest prosecutorial remarks I've seen, and I intend to show just why. This is from the EADT24 article:

“Within minutes, his friends on Facebook are condemning the words he has posted and telling him in no uncertain terms what a poor opinion they now have of him,” Miss Atkins said.

In response, the boy then posted a second message, saying he didn’t see the point of being pushed around by the police all the time.

The boy then entered into a debate with one friend in particular over the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham on August 4 before admitting his comments had been ‘stupid’.

“We are all thankful that his friends were much more sensible than he was and did not react in any way that would lead to further comments in any shape or form,” Miss Atkins told the court.

Lady, are you serious? "Within minutes, his friends... are condemning the words ... and telling him in no uncertain terms what a poor opinion they now have of him." [Translation] Within minutes, his friends are busting his balls for being an "idiot". Anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter regularly knows that this sort of banter happens all the time.

The boy then entered into a debate with one friend in particular in which he expressed some politically charged opinions and then admitted his earlier remarks had been "stupid". In other words, free speech worked exactly the way it's supposed to. Good speech followed some arguably bad speech and then the world was better for it. Although you wouldn't think that's the way it's meant to work if you listened to the idiotic remarks of arsehole prosecutor Atkins:

"We are thankful that his friends were much more sensible than he was and did not react in any way that would lead to further comments in any shape or form..."

I have to assume that this was not the end of the sentence. Is she really suggesting that a bad outcome would be the posting of further comments in any shape or form? Is she saying that it's a good job his friends didn't post their own similar Facebook updates? Are we all just a bunch of sheep who can't be trusted to think for ourselves? She seems to miss the central point. His friends did not react badly. They reacted well. The situation managed itself. Nor were his friends likely menaced. Perhaps someone turned him in. I don't know. If that's the case then this is tragic. Anyway, he deleted the post the same day. The post did not have much scope to cause menace, frankly. It went to about 400 people on Facebook, most of whom probably either didn't see it or just thought it was "stupid". Is there any need to punish this kid? He made an arguably stupid remark, possibly in jest, and was talked out of it. To impose criminal liability is tantamount to prosecuting a thought crime. It really is.

Now this is the part that really burns my arse. The defence does a terrible job. Horrific:

In police interview, the boy said he had only made the comments to ‘have a laugh’ and didn’t intend anyone to take the actions he had suggested.

David Stewart, in mitigation, said the boy had since realised he had been ‘inordinately foolish’ and recognised what an idiot he had been.

“His friends have a very poor opinion of him and he has a very poor opinion of himself,” Mr Stewart said.

“A lesson has been learnt.”
It's as if the defence counsel has never heard of the Twitter Joke Trial. That's because he probably hasn't. Early on in that case the South Yorkshire Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) persuaded the defendant and his lawyer that there was no choice but to enter a guilty plea as Paul Chambers did not deny that he'd sent the offending communication. In other words, the CPS were of the opinion that this was a strict liability offence. This was despite case law from the House of Lords that required mens rea (guilty mind, or intent) to be proven. Had Paul been receiving good legal advice from the beginning, he would have entered a not guilty plea and the CPS would likely have dropped the case, because they felt there was insufficient evidence at that time to prove intent.

I wonder whether Mr Stewart believed this to be a strict liability offence and that the only possible plea was guilty. I wonder whether the West Suffolk CPS believed this as well. This case is an utter disgrace. The rush to early "justice" following the UK Riots has prevented this young man from gaining access to a robust defence. Had some lawyers that I am well acquainted with had the time to become aware of this case before it was heard before the Magistrates, they could have offered free advice that I believe would have drastically improved the outcome of this "trial". I can only hope that the facts I've examined here can form the basis of a successful appeal. This truly is Arsehole Justice in its purest form. Let me end on this tragic note from the Guardian coverage:

The boy's mother told the court: "He is normally a good boy but, like all teenagers, he has his stupid moments."

Speaking to magistrates, the boy added: "I meant it as a joke which is why I wrote LOL at the end."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Links - 17th August 2011

Some good articles today (or yesterday, or whatever. Leave me alone):

Liberalism and Riots: Cause and Effect? by Matt Bradley (Arsehole Justice contributor)

Another Arsehole Justice: Andrew Gilbart QC, Manchester


Andrew Gilbart 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".

"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," he said. "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."

Regardless of the severity of the offences before the court, this statement is the epitome of arsehole justice. Nothing takes a specific offence out of the usual context of criminality. Proportionality is one of the fundamental principles of British justice. There may be aggravating or mitigating factors to consider, but the sentencing guidelines allow for this. You simply cannot throw out the sentencing guidelines and expect to deliver justice. Also, judge, please be aware that the principal purpose of courts is to protect the innocent not to make examples of people. I'm sure you will be familiar with Blackstone's formulation which tells us that it is better that ten guilty are set free than one innocent suffers. Andrew Gilbart QC, you are quite possibly an arsehole. The jury is still out on that one, but there's no question that this is a clear case of Arsehole Justice.

[NB - Read the rest of that article. David Cameron supports these harsh sentences. Some dude will probably go to prison for stealing an ice cream cone. Arseholes!]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Judge Elgan Edwards QC dishes out some Arsehole Justice in Cheshire

From the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/facebook-riot-calls-men-jailed

Judge Elgan Edwards QC has dished out some serious Arsehole Justice against the defendants Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw in Chester Crown Court. These two men were charged with inciting unrest under sections 44 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007, which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Both men received 4 years in prison for creating Facebook pages that appeared to be organizing riots in their local communities, neither of which resulted in any actual disorder and at least one of which was regarded as a joke by its author.

According to the Guardian article linked to above, Judge Edwards stated in his judgement that Blackshaw had committed an "evil act". He said: "This happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation..." [Flay here] Erm, actually I think that's what's happening now. "...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." [Flay here] Or maybe no one took it seriously except for the police. Hard to say.

About Sutcliffe-Keenan, the judge said he "caused a very real panic" and "put a very considerable strain on police resources in Warrington." [Flay here] I'd like to see the evidence of who was panicking. I wouldn't be surprised if it was only the police. The author of the page went to bed and woke up with a hangover, apologized, took the page down and said it had been a joke (sound familiar?). Neither of the two men caused a riot to take place. Nothing happened. You can credit the police for their swift actions; however, one would have thought that perhaps it would be better to use this information to try to catch potential rioters in the act. At any rate, four years after pleading guilty makes a mockery of justice. People serve less time for manslaughter. These guys wrote some words on a web site that caused nothing to happen except a police investigation. What really bothers me about this is that it is a natural response in human beings who are in denial about terrible things going on around them to make make light of the situation. Some of that may have been what happened here. For that reason and others, this seems like a clear case of Arsehole Justice.