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Read the Riot Act

Peace officers in their efforts to disperse mobs “read the riot act”; and indeed the expression has become proverbial, so much so, that some bosses are said “read the riot act” to their underlings when they are belated . But although the words are so commonly used, it may be doubted very much whether many know or stop to inquire what the riot act is, where the sheriff or other officer procures his copy of it, or how he reads it. Is it snmcient to say, “ Disperse, ye rebels,” as did a certain British general before the colonists had been in arms long enough to be dignified with the term “revolutionists”?

The text-books on criminal law and the American cases throw very little light on this subject. The Riot Act is an old English statute enacted about 1715, during the reign of George I, and the necessity for “reading” it arose from a provision that if any persons to the number of twelve or more, being unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, shall remain or continue together by the space of one hour after being commanded or requested by proclamation to disperse themselves, they shall be adjudged felons, and shall suffer death without benefit of clergy.

The statute provides that proclamation shall be made “openly and with loud voice” in these words: “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.” Making this proclamation constitutes in England “reading the riot act".

The Chicago anarchists at the Haymarket meeting had the riot act read to them in these words: “I command yon, in the name of the people of the State of Illinois, to immediately and peaceably disperse.” These words, as is declared in Spies v People, 122 Ill. 154, are the same as those used in the Illinois statute, declaring that when twelve or more armed persons, or thirty or more armed or unarmed, unlawfully, riotously, or tumultuously assemble in any city, it shall be the duty of each of the municipal officers “to go among the persons so assembled, * * * and in the name of the State command them immediately to disperse.” Similar provisions are found in the New York Code of Criminal Procedure, and in the statutes of other States.

The public journals of London recorded the meritorious behavior of a Private Sentry, upon the occasion of a riotous mob assembled at the entrance of Downing Street, with the intention of attacking the Government Offices in that quarter of the town. This man standing alone presented his musket, and threatened to fire upon the crowd if the slightest attempt were made to approach the particular office for the defense of which he was placed on duty, and succeeded by the terror thus created, though at a great risk of consequences to himself, in keeping the rioters at bay until a larger force arrived to assist him. The soldier's conduct was publicly much approved. It was also Clearly legal; and if after the announcement of his intentions the mob had pressed forward to execute their purpose, he would have been held justified at law in firing at the rioters upon his own responsibility.

The Duke of Wellington, as Constable of the Tower, testified his marked approbation of this man's conduct, by promoting him at once to a Wardership at that fortress.

During the Irish insurrection of 1848, Smith O'Brien was arrested at the railway station of Thurles, on a charge of high treason. A public passenger-train was on the point of starting for Dublin, and the engineer was mounted on the engine, with the steam up, and everything in readiness for the immediate prosecution of the journey. The scene of the arrest lay in the disturbed district, which was in the occupation of the troops employed to suppress the insurrection and prevent its extension. General Macdonald's Aide-de-Camp, having been apprised of the arrest, proceeded instantly to the station, and there commanded the engineer to dismount from the engine and to stop the train; it being of the utmost importance to the public safety and service that the news of the arrest should not be carried along the line of railway, as the country people might assemble in great numbers and destroy the rails, and rescue the prisoner, or otherwise impede the conveyance of the prisoner to Dublin.

Such interference would obviously have occasioned great loss of life, besides the danger to the public service at such a season. The engineer at first refused to obey the Aide-de-Camp's orders, whereupon the officer presented his pistol at the engineer, and threatened him with instant death if he persisted in his refusal. The man then dismounted; but it is conceived that the officer pursued a correct line of conduct, and exercised upon the occasion a sound discretion, which would have been a good legal defense to him if he had ultimately proceeded to execute his threat upon the engineer.

"Power in law" (says Sir Edward Coke) "means power with force." The right of officers or soldiers to interfere in quelling a felonious riot, whether with or without superior military orders, or the direction of a Civil Magistrate, is quite clear and beyond the possibility of mistake. This subject, however, was formerly little understood; and military men failed in their public duty through excess of caution.

George III and his Attorney General (Wedderburn) both deservedly acquired high credit for their energy in the crisis of the riots of 1780. When the King heard that the troops which had been marched in from all quarters were of no avail in restoring order, on account of a scruple that they could not be ordered to fire till an hour after the Riot Act had been read, he called a Cabinet Council, at which he himself presided, and propounded for their consideration the legality of this opinion. There was much hesitation among the Councilors, as they remembered the outcry that had been made by reason of some deaths from the interference of the military in Wilke's riots, and the eagerness with which Grand-juries had found indictments for murder against those who had acted under the command of their superiors.

At last the question was put to the Attorney General, who attended as Assessor, and he gave a clear, unhesitating, and unqualified answer to the effect, that if the mob were committing a felony, as by burning down dwelling-houses, and could not be prevented from doing so by other means, the military, according to the law of England, might and ought to be ordered to fire upon them; the reading of the Riot Act being wholly unnecessary and nugatory under such circumstances. The exact words used by him on this occasion are not known; but they must have been nearly the same which he employed when he shortly afterwards expounded from the judgment-seat the true doctrine upon the subject.

The requisite orders were issued to the troops, the conflagrations were stopped, and tranquillity was speedily restored. This eminent lawyer having become Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, with the title of Lord Loughborough, delivered a charge to the Grand-jury on the special commission for the trial of the rioters of 1780, in the following terms: "I take this public opportunity of mentioning a fatal mistake into which many persons have fallen. It has been imagined, because the law allows an hour for the dispersion of a mob to whom the Riot Act has been read by the Magistrate, the better to support the civil authority, that during that time the civil power and the Magistracy are disarmed, and the King's subjects, whose duty it is at all times to suppress riots, are to remain quiet and passive. No such meaning was within view of the Legislature, nor does the operation of the Act warrant such effect. The Civil Magistrates are left in possession of all those powers which the law had given them before. If the mob collectively, or a part of it, or any individual within or before the expiration of that hour, attempts, or begins to perpetrate, an outrage amounting to felony, to pull down a house, or by any other act to violate the law, it is the duty of all present, of whatever description they may be, to endeavor to stop the mischief, and to apprehend the offender."

"A riot" (says Mr. Justice Gaselee)" is not the less a riot, nor an illegal meeting, because the proclamation of the Riot Act has not been read; the effect of that proclamation being to make the parties guilty of a capital offense if they do not disperse within an hour; but if that proclamation be not read, the common-law offense remains, and it is a misdemeanor; and all Magistrates, Constables, and even private individuals are justified in dispersing the offenders; and if they cannot otherwise succeed in doing so, they may use force."

After the suppression of the great riots of London in 1780 by the aid of the troops, the Government was acrimoniously attacked both in and out of Parliament, on the ground that the employment of a military force, to quell riots by firing on the people, could only be justified, if at all, by martial law proclaimed under a special exercise of the royal prerogative; and it was thence argued that the nation was living under martial law.

But Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench, addressed the House of Lords on this subject, and placed it in its true light. "I hold" (said his Lordship) "that His Majesty, in the orders he issued by the advice of his Ministers, acted perfectly and strictly according to the common law of the land and the principles of the Constitution. .... Every individual in his private capacity may lawfully interfere to suppress a riot, much more to prevent acts of felony, treason, and rebellion. Not only is he authorized to interfere for such a purpose, but it is his duty to do so; and if called upon by a Magistrate, he is punishable in case of refusal. What any single individual may lawfully do for the prevention of crime and preservation of the public peace may be done by any number assembled to perform their duty as good citizens.

"It is the peculiar business of all Constables to apprehend rioters, to endeavor to disperse all unlawful assemblies, and, in case of resistance, to attack, wound, nay, kill those who continue to resist; taking care not to commit unnecessary violence, or to abuse the power legally vested in them. Every one is justified in doing what is necessary for the faithful discharge of the duties annexed to his office, although he is doubly culpable if he wantonly commits an illegal act under the color or pretext of law. The persons who assisted in the suppression of those tumults are to be considered mere private individuals acting as duty required. My Lords, we have not been living under martial law, but under that law which it has long been my sacred function to administer. For any violation of that law the offenders are amenable to our ordinary Courts of Justice, and may be tried before a jury of their countrymen.

"Supposing a soldier or any other person who acted in the course of the late riots exceeded the power with which he was invested, I have not a single doubt that he may be punished, not by a Court-Martial, but upon an indictment to be found by the Grand Inquest of the City of London or the County of Middlesex, and disposed of before the ermined Judges sitting in Justice Hall at the Old Bailey. Consequently the idea is false that we are living under a military government, or that, since the commencement of the riots, any part of the laws or of the Constitution has been suspended or dispensed with. I believe that much mischief has arisen from a misconception of the Riot Act, which enacts that after proclamation made persons present at a riotous assembly shall depart to their homes; those who remain there above an hour afterwards shall be guilty of felony and liable to suffer death. From this it has been imagined that the military cannot act, whatever crimes may be committed in their sight, till an hour after such proclamation has been made, or, as it is termed, 'the Riot Act is read.' But the Riot Act only introduces a new offense — remaining an hour after the proclamation — without qualifying any preexisting law, or abridging the means which before existed for preventing or punishing crimes."

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Page last modified: 31-10-2019 16:45:23 ZULU