R v STEER

Criminal damage to another’s property when endangering the lives of those in possession, are simultaneous acts that while seemingly joined, are determinable only by the mens rea attached.

In this matter, the defendant appealed against such a conviction on grounds that while capable of the crime itself, he could not be charged for an offence based on subjective opinion, as opposed to lawfully submitted evidence.

After falling out with his business partner, the appellant arrived at his colleague’s home brandishing a rifle; and having rung the doorbell, he then proceeded to aim and fire the gun at the bedroom window, living room window and front door.

No harm was caused to the occupiers; however, once arrested and indicted, he was charged with three offences: possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life under section 16 of the Firearms Act 1968, criminal damage to property with intent under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 and criminal damage to property while endangering the lives of others, whether through recklessness or intent under section 1(2) of the 1971 Act.

Having pleaded guilty to the first two charges, the appellant argued the third was superfluous to the crime, as the damage caused to the property was not such as to endanger lives, whereas the firing of the gun was evidently sufficient.

Basing his decision on the interpretation of section 1(2) as including not just the physical damage, but the mental intention (mens rea) to endanger lives, the judge dismissed the claim and directed the jury accordingly.

This prompted the appellant to plead guilty, before seeking redress in the Court of Appeal, who allowed the appeal, before the Crown moved to seek the wisdom of the House of Lords. 

While asking the House to determine if, under section 1(2)(b) of the 1971 Act, the prosecution were obliged to establish guilt of endangering life by either the property damage, or the actions of the accused, the House held that the respondent had accepted the recklessness of his actions.

And so, despite the contention of the Crown, it was implausible to suggest that the draftsmen of the 1971 Act had imagined that section 1(2)(b) was to be construed so as to consider the actus reus of the defendant when carrying out the crime, as being sufficient to establish endangerment of life, as opposed to endangerment arising from the physical damage caused.

In the alternative, it was further suggested by the House that the respondent had become culpable for an additional charge under section 17(2) of the Firearms Act 1968, and so the application of section 1(2) of the 1971 Act was both irrelevant and by construction void of effect, while concluding that:

“Upon the true construction of section 1(2)(6) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 the prosecution are required to prove that the danger to life resulted from the destruction of or damage to property; it is not sufficient for the prosecution to prove that it resulted from the act of the defendant which caused the destruction or damage.”

Hence, the House dismissed the appeal by a majority, while reminding the parties that:

“A person who, at the time of committing an offence under section 1 of the Act of 1971, has in his possession a firearm commits a distinct offence under section 17(2) of the Act of 1968…”