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Riots: Legal Aspects

Common Law

Unlawful assembly. At common law an unlawful assembly was defined as a gathering together of three or more persons with the common intent to achieve a purpose, lawful or unlawful, in a riotous or tumultuous manner. The common purpose or intent could be formed either before assembling or after the gathering took place. A meeting could therefore start out as a lawful assembly but change into an unlawful one.

The states are divided as to whether there must be an intent to perform the planned activity in a violent manner. Many jurisdictions require the presence or threat of force or violence disruptive of public order. Other jurisdictions consider the nature of the assembly. If the purpose is unlawful, then an unlawful assembly exists.

Rout. Rout is generally defined as the moving forward of an unlawful assembly toward the execution of its unlawful design (Follis v. State, 37 Tex. Crim. 535, 537, 40 S.W. 277 (1987)). A rout is essentially an attempt to commit a riot. It requires a specific intent to riot and a situation that ultimately falls short of actual riot. Thus, if two or more persons have the intent to riot and if they commit an act that threatens further acts of force or violence, they could be guilty of rout. The crime of rout has usually been abandoned or merged with that of unlawful assembly.

Riot. The generally accepted common law definition of riot is the following: "A riot seems to be a tumultuous disturbance of the peace, by three persons or more assembling together of their own authority, with an intent mutually to assist one another, against any who shall oppose them, in the execution of some enterprise of a private nature, and afterwards actually executing the same in a violent and turbulent manner, to the terror of the people, whether the act intended were of itself lawful or unlawful" (Hawkins, p. 243).

Several elements are generally required for the crime of riot: there must be at least three persons participating in a common riotous purpose, although only one need perform the objectionable act; there must be an unlawful assembly and overt acts committed without authority of law; and there must be use of force and violence. For the necessary purpose or intent, there must be some evidence of concerted action toward the furtherance of a common goal. The requisite concert of action may be inferred from the manner in which the unlawful acts of violence are committed.

Since a common law riot was committed when those who were unlawfully assembled began the perpetration of their unlawful design, most states held an unlawful assembly to be a prerequisite to the offense of riot. Riot was committed under the common law when a mob employed force or violence to accomplish its illegal purpose. "Unlawful force or violence" is interpreted broadly, but is generally viewed as conduct more serious than loud noise or disturbance. Riot could occur even though the objective were lawful if the defendants' actions were carried out or attempted in a violent and turbulent manner to the terror of the people. Persons charged with riot had to be present at the scene of the unlawful act.

In a few states, riot remains a common law crime (Cohen v. State, 173 Md. 216, 195 A. 532 (1937)). Most states have statutory definitions that follow the common law. Several states maintain the common law crimes as a supplement to their statutory enactments.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRiots: Legal Aspects - Introduction, Common Law, Statutory Riot Crimes, Related Statutory Offenses, The Federal Riot Act