Room for compassion in the courts

The 23-year-old student looter who became the poster child of the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot in June 2011 following the Vancouver Canucks Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins caught a break from the judge who sentenced her last week.

An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press, published Sept. 11:

The 23-year-old student looter who became the poster child of the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot in June 2011 following the Vancouver Canucks Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins caught a break from the judge who sentenced her last week.

University of British Columbia student Camille Cacnio, whose notoriety went viral after a widely viewed video posted on Internet websites captured her carrying pairs of stolen pants from the smashed-out storefront of Vancouver clothier Black & Lee Tuxedos, had earlier pleaded guilty to theft.

The riot, which caused an estimated $4 million in damage over several blocks of downtown Vancouver, saw rioters smash windows, set cars on fire and loot stores until police in riot gear and on horseback brought crowds under control.

When the video and still photos of Cacnio’s theft appeared on the Internet, she turned herself in to the police. She subsequently posted a rambling, 3,500-word apology on the Internet that attempted to explain her actions by saying she was drunk and caught up in mob mentality.

Cacnio was, rightly, spared jail by a compassionate judge, who concluded the 15 months of online and mainstream media attacks she’d been subjected to since the riot were more than enough to ensure she’d learned her lesson.

The Crown prosecutor had sought 15 to 30 days in jail, to be served on weekends. But the judge declined to incarcerate Cacnio. He gave her a suspended sentence, two years’ probation, a daily nighttime curfew and ordered her to perform 150 hours of community service. Although the judge declined to jail Cacnio, he denied her the conditional discharge sought by her lawyer, which would have allowed her to avoid a criminal record.

Only a handful of the 140 people facing charges arising from the riot have been sentenced to date. But so far, only Cacnio and one other rioter, who was sentenced to a term of house arrest, have avoided jail.

Online reaction to the sentence hasn’t been kind to the judge. Most online bloggers and posters criticize the decision as too lenient. But some judicial compassion was in order.

In the months after the Game 7 loss, Cacnio became the favourite target of online “shaming” websites that replayed video of her crime, attacked her at length and received posted comments — consistently negative — from all and sundry. She lost three jobs due to all the publicity and had to put her education on hold because of harassment at school. The judge properly took into account the raft of extra-legal consequences she’d suffered prior to pronouncing sentence.

The Criminal Code’s sentencing principles were also duly heeded. The Criminal Code expressly provides that a judge must consider all other penalties before ordering incarceration — particularly in the case of a first-time offender such Cacnio.

Judges, except for offences for which Canada’s Criminal Code prescribes a minimum sentence, have fairly broad discretion as to what penalty should be imposed.

The Criminal Code also stipulates a sentencing judge must consider certain principles, including that the penalty imposed should be reduced to account for any relevant “mitigating circumstances relating to the offence or offender.”

Cacnio had mitigating factors, at least post-riot, in spades, due at least in part to her notoriety.

In the 15 months since the Vancouver riot, she’d become a lightning rod for Internet attacks, publicly whipped across cyberspace in blogs, tweets and video postings. The presiding judge was well aware of her celebrity-defendant status. And Cacnio’s lawyer, at her sentencing hearing, underlined the extraordinary amount of “post-riot public reaction” her case had generated.

Cacnio’s sentence was just and appropriate. It was also tougher than some web critics allow.

Long after her name fades from public memory, she’ll continue to live with the stigma and consequences of a criminal conviction.

An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press, published Sept. 11