The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Monday, May 02, 2005

What's a Petty Crime?

A few months ago I was walking near the courthouse early in the evening. I had just passed McDonald's when a young man strode past me. He was holding a large cardboard McDonald's drink carton, and I was amazed to see him stop and hurl it across the road. Parked on the other side of the road was a bus and the carton slammed into the side of the cab, spraying what appeared to be milk everywhere. The driver's window was partly open and some of the milk sprayed her. I looked round and the man was sprinting up the road as fast as his Reeboks would carry him.

The driver shouted from her window for someone to tell her who had thrown the carton, so I walked across and told her what had happened, that the defendant had immediately sprinted off, and that I thought that there was no chance of catching him. I knew that the brief glimpse I had would never be enough for an identification. The driver was on her emergency radio by this time, asking her controller to call the police. "This bus is going nowhere" she announced and asked the dozen or so passengers she had aboard to get off as the service was cancelled.

There was nothing further that I could do, so I went on my way. Thinking it over on my way home, I was firstly baffled by the motivation of the man, who had presumably paid a pound or two for his carton of milk. The driver must have been frightened, because the missile landed with a loud thud, and for a brief moment she can have had no idea what it was, nor what the liquid consisted of. The group of passengers who were waiting for the bus to depart to an outlying part of the borough were forced to wait for at least 45 minutes for the next bus. The police and the bus company will have incurred expense.

Then I thought what if he had been caught and arrested? What could he be charged with - if he were indeed charged rather than cautioned? Criminal damage? Drunk and disorderly, if drink is involved? A Public Order offence of causing harassment alarm and distress? One of the myriad archaic offences that custody Sergeants like to dig out of the book when they have nothing much else to do?

I thought of the court appearance. Man pleads guilty, duty solicitor mitigates. His client is very sorry, he had had a row with his girlfriend, and had quite a lot to drink. The offence was trivial, after all it was only a cardboard carton of milk, not a brick or a bottle. No permanent harm was done. Client wants to apologise to the bus driver (nobody has mentioned the poor passengers!). Client has no previous. In all the circumstances, respectfully suggests a conditional discharge. In all likelihood that's what would happen. Otherwise a small fine, perhaps.

The Bench has only heard a part of the story, and has to sentence on what is before it. If I miraculously had the power to deal with the oaf, having seen exactly what happened and how many people were inconvenienced, and then being able to sentence him (out of the question because I am a witness) I would give him a 60-hour community punishment to make reparation to society, order £50 compensation to the driver and £15 to each passenger, and £50 to the bus company for cleaning costs. £50 prosecution costs.

There in a nutshell is one of the reasons why the public often feel that the courts under-sentence. The bench can only take account of factors that it knows about, and there is always more to a case that the prosecutor's summary will reveal.