Judgment of Swansea Crown Court on Liam Stacey’s appeal against sentence

 

IN THE SWANSEA CROWN COURT
Appeal No: A20120033

ON APPEAL FROM THE MAGISTRATES’ COURT

 

R v LIAM STACEY

1. On 19 March 2012 the Appellant pleaded guilty at the Swansea Magistrates’ Court to an offence contrary to section 31(1)(b) of the Public Order Act 1986. By his plea he admitted that he used threatening, abusive or insulting words with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress to users of the Twitter Internet Messaging Service. He also accepted that his offence was racially aggravated.

 

2. Following his plea of guilty the case was adjourned for a Pre-Sentence Report.

 

3. At a sentencing hearing on 27 March District Judge Charles sentenced the Appellant to a term of 56 days’ imprisonment. The Appellant now appeals to this Court against his sentence.

 

4. It is important to begin by explaining, fully, what it is that the Appellant did.

 

5. During the late afternoon of Saturday 17 March a football match was taking place between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. 42 minutes into the game one of the Bolton Wanderers players, Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch. Almost immediately it was appreciated that the player was gravely ill.

 

6. The Appellant was watching the game on television. Earlier that afternoon he had watched the rugby match between Wales and France and he had consumed a great deal to drink. His estimate is that he had consumed 15 cans of Carling lager. He has always maintained that he was drunk and we have no reason to think otherwise.

 

7. About 90 minutes after the Appellant had first seen Mr Muamba lying prostrate on the pitch he posted a message on Twitter to the following effect:-

“LOL fuck Muamba he’s dead”

LOL is accepted to mean laugh out loud.

As well as posting this message on his own account the Appellant linked the message to a site call Ha Ha. That meant that what he had written was capable of being read not just by those persons who followed the Appellant’s Twitter account but by any other user of Twitter.

 

8. The Appellant’s message provoked very strong responses. The first response was from a person who wrote:-

“You my friend are a grade A cunt heartless bastard.”

We are told and it is not disputed that this response came from a black man.

The Appellant replied:-

“I am not your friend, you wog cunt, go pick some cotton.”

As we understand it this exchange was available to all persons using Twitter. Many further messages were posted aimed at the Appellant. The Appellant received messages which were extremely critical of him and written in abusive language. However, this did not cause him to desist. Over the course of the next hour or thereabouts he posted at least 8 messages which were extremely abusive and insulting. All the messages were available to be read by persons who could access Twitter. Two of these messages were expressly racial; not only were the messages expressly racial but were couched in terms which can only be regarded as extremely offensive. One read,

“You are a silly cunt your mother’s a wog and your dad is a rapist, bonjour you scruff northern cunt.”

A second read

“Go suck a nigger dick you fucking aids-ridden cunt.”

 

9. There came a point in time when the Appellant began to realise the enormity of his behaviour. That occurred when one of his friends sent him a message urgently querying what he was doing. He then apologised online for what he had done.

 

10. The Appellant’s behaviour provoked a number of complaints to the police. A complaint was made to the Northumbrian Police Force and we are told that other forces were also contacted by members of the public who were outraged by the Appellant’s behaviour. The Appellant was traced quite quickly. At 10.18 on Sunday 18 March two police officers attended at his address in Swansea; they arrested him and cautioned him and he immediately admitted that he had posted racist comments on Twitter. He told the officers that he was drunk at the time, that he didn’t mean it and that he was really sorry.

 

11. That afternoon the Defendant was interviewed under caution. He made no attempt to hide what he had done.

 

12. The Appellant is aged 21. He is a student studying biology at Swansea University. He has no previous convictions. However, it is of some relevance that on 9 April 2011 he was issued with a penalty notice. That penalty notice was issued in respect of engaging in threatening abusive or insulting behaviour and using words likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. This penalty notice came about because on 9 April 2011 there was a disturbance outside Wetherspoon’s public house; the Appellant was detained by door staff. He engaged in a violent struggle and when police officers arrived he started swearing at them and making threats at them and despite their warnings he persisted.

 

13. An appeal to the Crown Court is an appeal by way of re-hearing. We have not been provided with a transcript of the sentencing remarks of the District Judge.

 

14. Mr Hobson, on behalf of the appellant, expressly acknowledges that the Appellant deserves significant punishment for the offence which he committed. Mr Hobson does not submit that a sentence of imprisonment was wrong in principle. He does submit, however, that such are the mitigating factors in this case that we can take a course of action which is alternative to an immediate sentence of imprisonment. Mr Hobson invites us to impose a stringent community order or a suspended sentence of imprisonment coupled with appropriate punitive requirements. We should record that Mr Hobson expressly accepts that if a sentence of immediate imprisonment is the appropriate sentence a term of 56 days was not too long.

 

15. The mitigating factors which are pressed upon us are these. First, this offence was completely out of character for the Appellant. We have been provided with a selection of measured and moderate character references which suggest that this is so. Second, the Appellant has no previous convictions. Third, he pleaded guilty at the first available opportunity having earlier admitted his offence to the police officers who interviewed him. Fourth, the case has attracted a great deal of publicity. The Appellant has been the subject of harsh comment in some quarters and he has become a figure of some notoriety. Mr Hobson submits that this is a significant punishment in itself. Fifth, the Appellant is genuinely remorseful. We accept that all these points have a degree of validity. It is not suggested that this offence can be excused in any way by the fact the Appellant had consumed a great deal of alcohol.

 

16. There are no applicable sentencing guidelines. We have been referred to no previous decided cases either in the Court of Appeal or at the Crown Court to assist in determining an appropriate sentence for this type of offence.

 

17. We have reached the clear conclusion that a sentence of immediate imprisonment was justified in this case. The words used by the Appellant were extremely offensive. We accept that the express racial content of the words were not aimed, specifically, at the stricken footballer but there can be no avoiding the conclusion that the Appellant’s offence was committed in the context of the grave illness which had suddenly afflicted Mr Muamba.

 

18. It must also be emphasised that the Appellant has pleaded guilty to a crime of specific intent. He intended to use words which were offensive and he intended that the words should be racially offensive.

 

19. In our judgment, to repeat, a sentence of immediate imprisonment is justified in such circumstances even for a young man with no previous convictions and with the other personal mitigation available to this Appellant.

 

20. As we have said Mr Hobson does not submit that the length of the sentence was inappropriate if a sentence of imprisonment was otherwise justified.

 

21. Accordingly this appeal is dismissed.

20 Responses to R v Stacey – appeal on sentence dismissed

  • Tony Lloyd says:

    It reads very much to me as “the appellant is not a nice man and said some repulsive things”.

    Both of which are, of course, true.

    We should, though, have legislation (and sentencing decisions) based on harm to others. Legislation should not be based on the revelation of character or on making sure that only nice opinions are voiced.

    No one was harrassed, no one was alarmed. I doubt anyone was, in any meaningful sense, “distressed”. There are nasty racist cunts in the world and discovering that there is a particular nasty racist cunt, i.e. the appellant, should not lead one to be “distressed”.

    I think that both the law and the sentence are wrong-headed.

    (On a happier note, Muamba seems to be getting on well pic.twitter.com/t9yeBk7T)

  • In this case and many others, we see reference made to the excessive consumption of alcohol and the position of the courts generally is that this is neither a mitigating nor exacerbating factor.
    I am wondering if national policy could look at the principle of “in Vino Veritas” i.e. that it IS an exacerbating factor as compared to character references which tend to emphasise the sound nature of the sober man.

    This might become an actual deterrent as our culture begins to adopt the notion that drinking to excess is inexcusable and any offence under such circumstances is exacerbated as per the rule regarding hate crime.

  • Gwen Park says:

    I admire the Court for taking a stance on this. I think we are gradually moving towards a place where the intake of excessive amounts of alcohol is an offence in itself, as the outcomes are so significant: liver damage that costs an already burdened NHS; unrestrained, reckless and even aggressive or violent behaviour, and often, poor financial management that can affect society in various ways (yes…bad financial management…). Aside from this, I think the last thing Britain needs right now is to set a precedent for this kind of behaviour. Just because this is some kind of middle class kid in uni. does not pave the way for ‘Hey Jolly ho! Boys will be boys…after a few pints and a good old bash at the rugger.’ In the current crisis, and given Britain’s huge reliance on a foreign people coming to buy into ‘Brand Britain’ I personally think that (to use his kind of terminology) this ‘p***head’ should take his b******ing like a man.’

    • Just in case my sarcasm detector isn’t working properly today:

      Was the section of your comment up to ‘financial management’, serious or sarcasm?

      • Gwen Park says:

        I am serious! It becomes reckless, and puts others at risk. Society itself has been increasingly policing this behaviour with tightened security on night spots, rules at work. I have been a heavy drinker for years, on a domestic level, but still, I have had to rethink my relationship with alcohol and the reality of this substance on all kinds of levels. It was acceptable when I was a kid, as I come from South Wales, the formerly industrial zone, where drinking was deeply embedded in the culture, at least for men. With the known implications of consuming 15 cans of beer, someone who voluntarily puts themselves in that position is accountable for their actions.

  • Pete Griffith says:

    I mentioned this on twitter: I’m confused by paragraph 16 as there seem to be clear guidelines on unaggravated s4A POA 1986 sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court Guidelines (http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk/docs/MCSG_(web)_-_March_2012.pdf page 87) and two pages of guidelines on how to deal with racial aggravation on pages 178-179. Includes “the sentencer should state what the sentence would have been without that element of aggravation.”

    There doesn’t seem to be any explicit reasoning as to why custody is appropriate here. It may be – I think you could make the case based on the factors which suggest a high level of aggravation in the Guidelines – but I wish it were spelled out!

  • Maxine says:

    I do not think this man should have been convicted of the “crime” of which he was accused. I hate this kind of behaviour on Twitter hence I only use the service in a very limited way. I think that social media “trends” are being given far too much importance by various “authorities” in the UK – who seem to lack the courage of their own convictions. By which I mean they should just ignore it all, as most users of these sites are “bored at work”, drunk, young, immature, silly etc.
    This case, and conviction, are absolutely ludicrous. I know it is not directly related, but apparently the Met alone is 400 cases behind in its rape investigations (because it has put so many of its resources into investigating phone hacking of “celebrities” et al). To me, this “twitter crime” pales into insignificance compared with real crimes involving GBH, rape,child abuse, robberies, and the like – many of which are not investigated intelligently or at all.

  • Jedgardee says:

    Gwen, you admire the court for imprisoning a pissed-up gobshite for 56 days for calling someone names? Being unpleasant should never be a criminal offence. Neither should being offensive. I’m offended all the time. I generally get over it. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg as the quote goes.

    ….and an MP got pissed and beat the shit out of other MPs and only got community service……

    • Gwen Park says:

      I do not believe that the sentencing was necessarily appropriate, I just admire the Court for taking a stand. The fact we are discussing it now means it wasn’t the path of least resistance. However, it could have been dangerous for sensitive race relations if it was not seen to be dealt with in a significant way. John Galliano was fired from Dior for making a racialy motivated statement about Jews: did he do this in print? To a Jewish organisation at a press conference? Or was it just heard by colleagues, I don’t know (maybe it was even just an excuse to fire him). The fact is, insufficient reaction can be viewed as complicity or even endorsement. It is monumental, being incriminated by Twitter, but in the end it is putting something out there in writing in the public domain.

    • Gwen Park says:

      If an MP beats up another MPs it is unlikely to cause a social uprising in tense multi racial inner city areas, but if racist abuse on social sites ‘caught on’ as it was unlikely to be taken seriously something more dangerous could brew.

      • Jedgardee says:

        So this prat calling someone names is infinately worse that a serious assult because someone might see it and get upset? Bizarre, not to mention patronising to those minorities who you think might kick off because of it. I’d give people more credit than that.

        As Kimpatsu says this is a free speech issue. You beat bad arguments with better ones, not by criminalising those you disagree with. Otherwise who decides which views are forbidden and which are acceptable.

  • Tom (iow) says:

    I am very uneasy about this whole affair. The question of exactly why has been bothering me for a few days, but I will try to draw my thoughts together.

    Firstly, I do not understand why this case was brought so speedily with what seems undue haste. It smacks of some kind of special treatment due to the celebrity element.

    Next, I cannot see what the public interest is in prosecuting. It was not a case of ongoing harassment or stalking. People could easily have ignored his unpleasant tweets. It can’t be compared to drunken loutishness in public, because that causes people to have their space invaded, when they can reasonably expect to be out enjoying themselves. Nobody is really forced to put up with any remarks on twitter unless they choose to keep reading, except in the case of sustained harassment.

    But the worst thing to me seems to be that the severe sentence is not really due to the level of alarm or distress caused at all. It is really because of the political merit, or lack rather lack of merit, of the views Stacey expressed. Certainly his messgaes lacked any merit. But the flip side of the sensible point made here is that the political merit of someone’s views cannot properly be considered in a case against them.

    Was there, for example, evidence given that the victim who received the messages was alarmed or distressed, and if so, the level of that alarm or distress? If so is it really credible, considering the truly offensive part of the exchange was initiated by the victim calling Stacey a “cunt”? People are stupid on the interent all the time, as in this celebrated xkcd cartoon. It seems to have been assumed that becasue the content of the messages was so stupid, that this in itself meant they must be assumed to aggravate the sentence. Stacey’s solicitor seems to have fallen for the same ruse.

    I cannot see the relevance of the judge’s remark that the “context” of Mr Muamba’s illness must be considered. This again seems to me to be about the merit of the views expressed, otherwise it’s completely irrelevant. What the judge is really saying is that Mr Muamba was at that moment very popular and for Stacey to say “fuck Muamba” was very unpopular. But the real “context” for me is an inconsequential drunken rant, not imposed on anybody, not in an the slightest way credible as any kind of threat. If one considers the actual things the law should be protecting people from, this makes it a trivial offence.

    As for the actual merit of his views, Stacey would not escape consequences for saying those things, but the proper medium for that is non-legal sanctions such as being considered a moron.

    • Gwen Park says:

      The celebrity element gave it profile. The profile of the matter is very bad for Britain’s image on the international scene, particularly following the riots of last year. The media were careful to edit footage of the scenes to avoid showing too many black people involved and instigating events because of how that could elements of society with existing issues about race. The shrinking of resources in relation to population and need has left people in areas of high immigration feeling even more pushed to the kerb. People are getting aggressive with each other because of tightened competition for basic things like keeping a roof over your head. This hasn’t sweetened the general public view of immigration or foreigners. The sentence may not have seemed ‘fair’ in judicial terms, because people get treated more lightly for parallel offences without the racial or celebrity element, but I understand the need to deter behaviour in the public domain which is very bad for Britain’s profile internationally, and poisonous to a currently tense and discontented society.

      • Fitzroy says:

        “The celebrity element gave it profile.”

        No, it didn’t. The fact that he was arrested, charged, and sentenced to 56 days imprisonment gave it ‘profile’. But for his arrest he would have been just another small minded bigot on the internet, something of which we have such a surfeit his comments would have been lost in the morass.

        The idea that one man’s comments, however so vile, could be “very bad for Britain’s profile internationally, and poisonous to a currently tense and discontented society” is frankly laughable.

  • Claire Mayo says:

    While I think that the comments made by Mr Stacey are abhorrent, I think it is a very sad day when someone can be sent to prison for stating an opinion, however misguided. We used to be a country who were proud of our ability to speak freely, now we are a country where anyone who holds an opinion not held by the moral majority should be very afraid. I was offended by his comments, but maintain he should have the right to publish them on a medium such as twitter without being prosecuted. Surely public ridicule of his opinions are a much more potent force than having his opinions strengthened by feeling that he has been persecuted?

  • Kimpatsu says:

    And British society continues to descend into being a fascist theocracy. The man’s comments were appalling, but this is a free speech issue. If you can be imprisoned for using racist language, then next it will be for speaking out against religious figures like the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Free speech has been criminalized in Britain, and it sucks.

  • The Infamous Grouse says:

    While Mr Stacey’s rants were disgusting in the extreme I really don’t like where this is going. It hands an unprecedented level of power to the Twitter hive mind. Given the precedent set by this sentence, it opens the door to the possibility of socially engineering someone into receiving an actual custodial sentence.

    1. Choose someone with a prejudice who wouldn’t ordinarily air it in public. Sad though it is to say, I bet everyone reading this knows at least one such person.
    2. Get them riled up and/or drunk.
    3. Provoke them into posting something contentious on Twitter (and if it’s aimed at a celebrity, all the better).
    4. You and a few hundred followers bombard the police with reports and links until they’re forced to respond.
    5. Victim’s life ruined. Job done.

    Very, very worrying indeed.

  • These ‘crimes’ and of course sentences all stem from the decision during the Labour years to introduce the very idea of ‘hate crime’.

    Once you commence legislating as to what is acceptable within a person’s mind, the world of the ‘Stasi’ is not very far away

  • Neil Howlett says:

    I occasionally think things that would be offensive to others – I don’t type them out and broadcast them to hundreds of people I’ve never met. That’s the difference.

    I have the discretion to pause first and realise that, even if I think they might be witty or profound, they would cause distress to other people.

    However, I’ve just taken delivery of an iPhone so that may change . . . see you down the cells . . .

  • ivan says:

    I have a confession to make – I am a cyclist. Nevertheless it is relevant, because cyclists often discuss precisely the sentencing of such cases. The reason they do so is to compare it with the sentencing for people found guilty of “causing death by careless driving”. Often, when they discuss it, it is a cyclist who is dead and the person found guilty was driving a car, or, disproportionately frequently, a lorry. Though of course many others also die. Cyclists often mention that custodial sentences are given to people guilty merely of what might be called careless words, whereas those who are careless with powerful heavy machinery easily capable of killing people often get non-custodial sentences. The wording itself “death by CARELESS driving” tends to minimise the seriousness of the issue. I think my calling Mr Stacey’s offence “careless words” seems an entirely appropriate level of priority in that context.

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