‘I hereby sentence you to ……….. in prison for vandalism, causing irreparable damage to government property’, the Lady Magistrate read part of her judgment.
‘He was only protesting against the power-shortage,’ a woman in the back shouted at the Magistrate. ‘What type of country is this?’
‘A country struggling to return sanity to its leaders and people alike’, the Lady Magistrate replied.
I was awed at her response, perhaps because I initially thought that she would hold the woman in contempt of Court. This lady magistrate is one serious Bencher. After the sitting, I imagined the many events that occur in our society; people fighting in public, people protesting government policies and destroying property during their altercations with law enforcement, etc.
This article briefly looks at vandalism, its ingredients and its legal consequences.
What is vandalism?
Vandalism, literally, is a deliberate act of destroying or damaging property. Property could be privately or publicly owned. Offenders may have acted singly or in groups and therefore charged accordingly.
Acts of vandalism are numerous and may include; mutilating or defacing billboards, slashing or burning plantations, felling plantations/vegetation, shattering windows, doors, etc.
The ‘ingredients’ of vandalism
Ingredients in law mean the elements that must be present in an act, for that act to be unlawful. They include:
- Intention: An offender must have intended to cause some form of damage to property. The element of intention is what is criminally termed as ‘mens rea’.
- Act: The act must have occurred and performed by the accused. In criminal law, an act is termed ‘actus reus’.
Mens rea and actus reus are the major ingredients of criminal offences in our judicial system and must be proved in Court in order to execute the maximum punishment. Where any of the two is missing but an offence is evident, the penal sanctions are minimal since the gravity of the act is affected by the absence of either.
In recent circumstances, cases of vandalism involve escalations of acts of violence and often, vandalism becomes a minor offence when greater offences are committed or proved. For instance, there are reported cases of communities destroying properties like houses of persons suspected of witchcraft. The act of destroying property is vandalism. However, where the mobs assault, injure or kill the suspected witch, the charge sheets carry heavier offences of assault, murder, manslaughter; which offences carry greater penalties than vandalism.
It is therefore safe to caution against acts of vandalism
- Duty of care owed to aggrieved person: This duty is founded in ‘the neighbour principle’ by Lord Atkin (English judge) in the famous case of Donoghue versus Stevenson (1932) AC, 562 at page 580. In that case, Lord Atkin ruled that a person’s actions should not cause injury to another person. A person may act reasonably, with knowledge that his actions should not affect his neighbour. This duty became the duty of care in law.
In vandalism, vandals do not care whether their actions will affect a victim. Vandals simply act with intention to harm the aggrieved person and often without care of what effects their actions make create to that person.
- The accused abused his duty of care he owed to the aggrieved person: To convict a vandal, it must be proven that the accused is the actual vandal that caused the damage to the aggrieved person. Prosecuting the wrong person is offensive enough to cause an abortion of justice to the aggrieved person as well as create more problems for the prosecution for wrongful charges against an innocent person.
The law governing criminal offences in Uganda is the Penal Code Act, Cap120. Chapter VIII of this law defines unlawful assemblies, riots and other offences against public tranquility; and prescribes punishments for such offenses. From section 56-80, the provisions define several offences created by many reasons/sources wherein vandalism has some major role. Each provision has its own penal sanction and as such, cautions the public against acts of violence, riots and destruction of property.
An accused person, regardless of the reason why he committed an act of vandalism, will have no excuse once any of the above ingredients is established. On conviction, a penalty will be pronounced regardless of what reason led to vandalism in the first place.
In as much as our society has changed; and people have ventured into forms of civil disobedience to seek intervention from authorities empowered to act upon certain policies and events in our society, vandalism is neither a logical nor a just method to employ to have these policies acted upon.
Peaceful protests, legal forms of civil disobedience and a lot of advocacy are presently the best alternatives to have authorities act on their obligations; not vandalism.
Next week, we will look at affray as an offence and what it entails.