Those potentially facing charges related to the Stanley Cup riot must have shuddered with relief this week when news broke that the first person to be sentenced in connection with the rampage effectively received a public spanking and little more.
Karanvir Singh Saran, 18, received an absolute discharge after pleading guilty to being in possession of stolen property taken the night of the uprising. Bad boy, the judge said. Don't ever do it again.
The case, it turns out, had slipped through the cracks of the wider riot investigation being directed by the Vancouver Police Department and that recently led to the force recommending 163 charges against 60 people with the promise of hundreds more to follow. The Crown is widely expected to accept the VPD's counsel and press ahead with charges in virtually every instance.
But so what if rioters are already getting off scot-free?
There is an important aspect of the Saran decision that largely accounts for the young man's good fortune: he was not charged with "taking part in a riot."
This, it turns out, is the Criminal Code abuse that packs the most wallop as far as riots are concerned, and so consequently is the contravention with which the police are hoping to nail as many people as possible in connection with this year's Stanley Cup riot. It's the main reason Chief Jim Chu has insisted on such a thorough and complete investigation, despite receiving heavy criticism for the length of time it's taken.
It should be noted that of the 60 people named in phase one of its investigation, the VPD is recommending that each be charged with "taking part in a riot."
"The Saran case proves exactly what happens when you rush a case to court," said Chief Chu. "You get a slap on the wrist."
For those cynical about the court's appetite for getting heavy with rioters, particularly those with no previous criminal history, Chief Chu points to a 1992 B.C. Court of Appeal decision that will undoubtedly play a profound role in the sentences handed out in connection with the 2011 Vancouver riot.
At the centre of the case was an 18-year-old Penticton, B.C., man named George Loewen. In the summer of 1991, he was drawn from his home by the sounds of a rowdy gathering of young people along the shores of Okanagan Lake. Most were wildly drunk, and when police arrived, events degenerated further.
Mr. Loewen, who had no previous criminal history, got caught up in the madness, destroying a newspaper box and helping turn over and destroy the iconic Peach Concession stand. Eventually, he was charged for his involvement and was given one month in jail on each of two counts of mischief related to property, which were to run consecutively with a 10-month sentence for taking part in a riot.
Among those handing out sentences at the time in connection to the Penticton disturbance was the eminent jurist H.A.D. Oliver, who wrote in one instance: "The people of Penticton are entitled to look to the courts for protection. If rioting is to go unrestrained and unpunished, violence and mob rule will replace peaceful government. It must be clearly understood that participation in a riot such as this will inevitably result in substantial terms of imprisonment."
In June, 1992, the appeal court reduced Mr. Loewen's sentence to six months, largely based on references from acquaintances who described the teenager as hard-working, honest, dependable and trustworthy. He was also given one year's probation and ordered to perform 150 hours of community work.
The Loewen decision would later be cited in court cases stemming from the 1994 Vancouver riot.
Neil MacKenzie, spokesman for the B.C. justice branch, said sentencing records from the 1994 riot are not comprehensive. But according to "anecdotal records," about 50 adults initially were charged. "Almost all of the adults convicted of the offence of taking part in a riot received jail sentences ranging from three months to one year.
"Overall, they represented roughly one-third of all the adults charged," said Mr. MacKenzie.
For those hoping that the courts don't go easy on those who trashed downtown Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, the Loewen decision offers hope. Chief Chu says it is binding on the lower courts and consequently will have significant impact on the final disposition of many of the 2011 riot cases.
Maybe. But I still can't shake the feeling that Karanvir Saran won't be the last person charged in connection with the riot to walk away from court with a smile on his face.