1902 Encyclopedia > Riot


RIOT is "an unlawful assembly which has actually begun to execute the purpose for which it assembled by a breach of the peace and to the terror of the public. A lawful assembly may become a riot if the persons assembled form and proceed to execute an unlawful purpose to the terror of the people, although they had not that purpose when they assembled" (Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law, art. 73). The above is the definition of a riot at common law in England. The offence is the most grave kind of breach of the peace known to the law, short of treason. In its previous stages it may be an affray, an unlawful assembly, or a riot, According to circumstances, and it may, if carried far enough, become treason. An affray is the fighting of two or more persons in the public street An unlawful assembly is an assembly of three or more persons with intent to commit a crime by force or carry out a common purpose, lawful or unlawful, in such a way as to give reasonable grounds for fearing a breach of the peace. A rout is an unlawful assembly which has made a motion towards the execution of its common purpose. If the unlawful assembly should begin to demolish a particular inclosure, that would be a riot; if it should proceed to pull down all inclosures, that would be treason. It was considered as early as the 14th century that the common law gave an insufficient remedy against riot. In 1360 the statute of 34 Edw. III. c. I gave jurisdiction to justices to restrain, arrest, and imprison rioters. In 1393 the statute of 17 Ric. II c. 8 conferred similar powers on the sheriff andposse comitatus. Numerous other Acts extending the common law were passed, especially in the Tudor reigns (see Stephen, History of the Criminal Law, vol. i, p. 202). The effect of existing legislation is to constitute certain statutory offences similar to riot at common law. The earliest Act now in force is one commonly called the Riot Act, I Geo. I. St. 2, c. 5. That Act makes it the duty of a justice, sheriff, mayor, or other authority, wherever twelve persons or more are unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together to the disturbance of the public peace, to resort to the place of such assembly and read the following proclamation:—"Our Sovereign Lady the Queen 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 tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the Queen. It is a felony punishable with penal servitude for life to obstruct the reading of the proclamation or to remain or continue together unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously for one hour after the proclamation was made or for one hour after it would have been made but for being hindered. The Act requires the justices to seize and apprehend all persons continuing after the hour, and indemnifies them and those who act under their authority from liability for injuries caused thereby. Any prosecution for an offence against the Act must be commenced within twelve months after the offence.

By 24 & 25 Vict. c. 97, § 11, it is a felony punishable with penal servitude for life for persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together to the disturbance of the public peace to unlawfully and with force demolish or begin to demolish or pull down or destroy any building, public building, machinery, or mining plant. By § 12 it is a misdemeanour punishable with seven years’ penal servitude to injure or damage such building, &c. A riotous assembly of three or more seamen unlawfully and with force preventing, hindering, or obstructing the loading or unloading or the sailing or navigation of any vessel, or unlawfully and with force boarding any vessel with intent to do so, constitutes a misdemeanour punishable with twelve months’ hard labour, 33 Geo. III. c. 67. In addition to these Acts, there are others aimed at crimes of a somewhat similar nature, such as assembly for the purpose of smuggling, going armed in pursuit of game by night, forcible entry and detainer, political meetings in the city of Westminster, tumultuous petitioning, and unlawful drilling. For these offences see Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law, art. 76-82.

It is the duty of a magistrate at the time of a riot to assemble subjects of the realm, whether civil or military, for the purpose of quelling a riot. In this duty he is aided by the common law, under which all subjects of the realm are bound to assist on reasonable warning, and by various enactments enabling the authorities to call out the auxiliary and reserve forces for the suppression of riot, and to close public houses where a riot is apprehended. It is his duty to keep the peace; if the peace be broken, honesty of intention will not avail him if he has been guilty of neglect of duty. The question is whether be did all that he knew was in his power and which could be expected from a man of ordinary prudence, firmness, and activity. The law as thus stated is gathered from the opinions of the judges on the trials of the lord mayor of London and the mayor of Bristol on indictments for neglect of duty at the time of the Gordon riots of 1780 and the Bristol riots in 1831.[Footnote 565-1]
In addition to his liability to an indictment at common law, a defaulting magistrate is subject under the provisions of 13 Hen. IV. c. 7 and 2 Hen. V. st. 1, c. 8, to a penalty of £100 for every default, the default to be inquired of by commission under the great seal. A matter of interest is the extent of the protection afforded by the Riot Act to soldiers acting under the commands of their officers. The soldier is at the same time a citizen, and the mere fact of his being a soldier is not sufficient to exonerate him from all responsibility. No case in which the question has called for decision seems to have arisen. It is the opinion of Mr Justice Stephen that a soldier would be protected by orders for which he might reasonably believe his superior officer to have good grounds (History of the Criminal Law, vol. i. 206). On the other hand, he would probably not be protected by an order plainly unnecessary, such as an order to fire into a crowd of women and children when no violence was observable.

The civil remedy given to those whose property has suffered by riot is of an exceptional character. The action is brought against the hundred in which the riot took place. This liability of the hundred is a survival of the pro-Conquest obligation of the hundred and tithing to pursue and do justice on the thief : the hundred is supposed to guarantee the orderly conduct of its inhabitants, and is liable to damages for its failure to preserve order. The liability of the hundred in case of robbery was enacted as early as the Statute of Winchester, 13 Edw. I. st, 2. That and subsequent Acts were repealed by 7 & 8 Geo. IV. c. 27, and their provisions were consolidated and amended by 7 & 8 Geo. IV. c. 31. The Act gives a remedy against the hundred in the case of any church, chapel, house, machinery, &c., being "feloniously demolished, pulled down, or destroyed, wholly or in part, by any persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together." A summary remedy is given for damage not exceeding £30. The remedy is extended to injury to threshing machines by 2 & 3 Will. IV. c. 72. It has been held that damage to a house will not entitle the owner to compensation from the hundred unless the intention of the rioters was to totally destroy the house.

The Riot Act does not extend to Ireland. But similar provisions are contained in the Act of the Irish Parliament of 27 Geo. III. c. 15, as amended by 5 & 6 Vict. c. 28. An offence peculiar to Ireland and punishable with penal servitude for life under the provisions of the Acts above mentioned is the sending of a notice, letter, or message exciting or tending to excite a riot. The Prevention of Crimes Act, 1882, enabled summary proceedings ta be taken against rioters. The Act was temporary only, expiring with the session of Parliament 1885.

In Scotland a riot may be either rioting and mobbing or rioting and breach of the peace. The first is much the same as the riot of English law. "Mobbing consists in the assembling of a number of people and their combining against order and peace to the alarm of the lieges" (Macdonald, Criminal Law, 180). The second offence occurs where concourse or a common purpose are wanting. Numerous Acts against riot and unlawful convocation were passed by the Scottish parliament at different times beginning as early as 1457. The Riot Act (1 Geo. 1.) applies to Scotland. The liability of the county or burgh for destruction of property, by riot is provided for by the Riot Act and by several Acts of Parliament of the reign of George III.

In the United States the law is based upon that of England. In some States there is a statutory proclamation for the dispersion of rioters in words almost identical with those of the British Riot Act. The city, town, or county, according to circumstances, is liable for the damage caused by rioters. In some cases a remedy over against the rioters is given by legislation. (J. W†.)


565-1 Reports of these trials will be found in Carrington and Payne’s Reports, vol. v., p. 254.

The above article was written by James Williams, D.C.L.; Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford; Hon. LL.D., Yale; author of The Schoolmaster and the Law, Wills and Succession, The Institutes of Justinian, illustrated by English Law, and other works on legal questions; also of A Lawyer's Leisure, Ethandune, Simple Stories of London, in verse.

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