Introduction and Facts
We have covered a fair amount of social media prosecutions (see here, et al), some on different sides of the line of what should probably be criminal in a modern society.
Since the death of Jo Cox MP last year, the police (and society at large) have taken threats to MPs more seriously, for obvious and understandable reasons.
Into this stepped Mark Sands. On 16th November 2016 he expressed his feelings about Caroline Ansell, the Conservative MP for Eastbourne, who he wrongly believed had voted in favour of cutting disability benefits.
On his own Facebook wall, he said “If you vote to take £30 off my money, I will personally come round to your house… and stab you to death.” There were a variety of other postings, including
Sands, who was sentenced at Brighton Magistrates’ Court, posted additional messages ‘including “End poverty, kill a Tory now” and, under the political views section of his profile, had written “Kill your local MP”‘.
This was given a more sinister air by the fact that there was an image of Jo Cox MP ‘alongside the words “sawn-off 2.2”‘.
It would appear from the news story that Mr Sands had actually named the street in which Ms Ansell lived, which is presumably why the police labelled the threat as a credible one.
The Guardian had some more details – under the ‘work’ section of his Facebook profile, he wrote ‘The Killing Fields, Trainee Murderer‘. Further, “after his arrest Sands told a mental health nurse: “It’s not like I killed her, maybe I should.”
The offence was charged under the now well known s127 Communications Act 2003, which has a maximum sentence of 6 months. There are more serious offences for more serious behaviour – s1 Malicious Communications Act 1988 (2 years) or threats to kill (10 years) that would presumably been used if the threat had been intended to be seen, or directed towards Ms Ansell.
Mr Sands was sentenced to 4 months. In addition, there was a Restraining Order imposed that prohibits Mr Sands from contacting Ms Ansell in the future.
There are sentencing guidelines issued to magistrates (see page 34). The most serious category is for a ‘Single call where extreme language used and substantial distress or fear caused to receiver; OR One of a series of similar calls as described in box above‘.
There was a guilty plea, although it is not clear when in the proceedings this was entered, so this would have given some credit. The sentence passed therefore represents something very close to the maximum.
Although there are clearly plenty of other examples of behaviour far more serious than this, it is probably the case that the Judge put it at the top of this offence (although it is not entirely clear why this should have a maximum of 6 months when the malicious communications offence has one of 2 years).
There seems to have been a background of political posting of a similar nature, and so this would explain the harshness of the sentence.
No doubt this will be debated at length on twitter, but we cannot see an appeal getting very far, at least unless there are factors of specific mitigation to Mr Sands rather than his overall criminality.
It would be useful to have guidance as to when the different offences should be used, and what approaches Judges should take to sentencing what is undoubtedly a ‘growth area’ in the criminal law.