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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Reading the Riot Act (no, really!)

I was curious where the phrase "read the Riot Act" comes from, so I consulted good ol' Wikipedia:
The Riot Act (1 Geo. 1, c. 5), long title "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", is an old piece of English legislation allowing certain officials to declare any assembly of more than twelve persons to be unlawful and order the assembly to disperse within one hour on pain of death. Most sources say it was enacted in 1715, but it was actually enacted in 1714 and went into effect in 1715. This was a period of insurgency in England. To invoke the Act, the following words had to be read by a "justice or justices of the peace, or by the sheriff of the county, or his under-sheriff, or by the mayor, bailiff or bailiffs, or other head-officer, or justice of the peace of any city or town corporate": "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 the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King." In Canada, the version goes as follows: "Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or their lawful business, on pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to an imprisonment for life. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!" The Riot Act has to be read verbatim, and at least one conviction has been overturned in a case where the words "God Save the King" had been omitted.
It's kind of a shame that the term has been watered down to mean just a harsh tongue-lashing, when the real meaning is "get the hell out of here RIGHT NOW or you will HANG." By the way, here's the whole Riot Act. This is how it works. If 12 or more people are rioting, a peace officer goes to the crowd and reads the Riot Act. The rioters have exactly 60 minutes after "God Save the King!" to get the hell out of Dodge. If they don't, and there are still at least 12 of them, Johnny Law rounds them all up. And if any of the rioters should accidentally be shot, stomped on by Johnny Law's horse or beaten to a bloody pulp, Johnny Law is off the hook. The surviving rioters are dragged off to a judge, where they are sentenced to death. Other provisions of the Riot Act: -Any rioter trying to demolish a church or "any dwelling-house, barn, stable, or other out-house" is sentenced to death. -Any armed person who forceably hinders or attempts to hinder a peace officer from reading the Riot Act is sentenced to death. In such a case, the rioters still have an hour to disperse or be sentenced to death, if they knew about the hindrance. -Anyone whose church, house, barn, stable or other out-house is destroyed by rioters can sue, and the town is on the hook for the damage. Interestingly, the Act applies to groups of 12 or more. If I'm interpreting this right, if 12 rioters are rioting, and the sheriff comes by and reads the Riot Act, and one of them goes home, the other 11 guys can just keep on rioting. So, the next time you feel like starting a riot in 18th-century England, remember to establish a 12-man team with one Designated Weenie.


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