NEWS
12/19/2011 04:00 EST | Updated 02/17/2012 05:12 EST

Vancouver Riots: Court Cases Start But Stanley Cup Rioters May Get Off Lightly

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VANCOUVER - The sound of breaking glass still unsettles Francesco Caligiuri.

It's been six months since that sound flooded Caligiuri's family-owned Italian restaurant in downtown Vancouver. Half a year since he and his family used dining room tables to barricade themselves inside as a chaotic mass of jersey-clad Canucks fans hurled rocks, bottles, garbage, and anything else they could find at his restaurant.

The broken windows have long since been cleaned up, but someone — a hurried server, a clumsy customer — ends up dropping a dish at Da Gino Ristorante Italiano just about every day.

"It's always going to trigger that bad memory," says Caligiuri, sitting at a table near where he took cover the night the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final in June.

"It's a wine glass, something that happens at a restaurant every day, or a plate breaks, and I'm like, 'What's happening?'"

The damage wrought by the rioters was largely cleaned up within weeks of the June 15 melee, but the story continues to scar the city, its residents, and the young men and women who joined in on the destruction after being overcome by alcohol, stupidity or some combination of the two.

And now, with the story entering its next chapter in the courts, those same people are looking to the legal system, with the victims of the riot waiting for justice and the accused rioters waiting to learn whether they'll be punished and how.

It will likely be a long process, stretching on for months or even years, and some observers say even when it's finished, the costly criminal process may not amount to the tough jail sentences some in the city are likely hoping for.

In the end, Caligiuri's restaurant sustained about $2,500 in broken windows and furniture. Other businesses were hit harder, with the total damage throughout downtown estimated to be about $5 million.

Caligiuri isn't expecting the rioters to pay that money back, and he's not even sure if anyone will be charged specifically for vandalizing his restaurant.

But he says he's looking forward to seeing rioters convicted and forced to take responsibility for what they did.

"I'm pretty sure somebody that is charged for hitting somewhere like The Bay, at one point, they were damaging our restaurant," says Caligiuri.

"As long as they get charged, as long as these people do pay one way or another — and it doesn't matter if it's jail time or criminal records or whatever it's got to be — as long as it sticks with them in their minds."

It could be some time before an already backlogged court system resolves any of the cases, and it's unclear how many rioters will face the stiff sentences foreshadowed by B.C.'s premier or the city's police chief — both of whom have said their goal is to send the rioters to jail.

So far, 27 people have been charged with participating in a riot, along with a mix of other charges that include arson, break and enter, assault and mischief. Police have predicted hundreds will eventually be charged.

Only a handful have made their first appearances in court.

Legal experts say any rioters who are convicted will face a wide range of potential sentences, from jail time in the most extreme cases to conditional sentences or discharges for more minor instances and first-time offenders.

"Any suggestion that they're all going to be dealt with similarly and we're starting with a presumption of jail time is ridiculous," says Vancouver-based criminal law expert Eric Gottardi.

Gottardi is representing some of those charged and would not comment on the cases directly.

"Instigators and individuals whose conduct was extremely risky or dangerous, I think there's a strong possibility they could be looking at some jail time. But for other individuals whose actions were non-violent, I think — and I hope — we'd be looking for more community-oriented resolutions."

The charge of participating a riot carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, although maximum sentences are rarely imposed. Other charges such as arson carry longer potential sentences, but none of the offences on the table have mandatory minimums.

There aren't many previous riot convictions for judges to look to when considering sentencing, making it difficult to predict what will happen to anyone convicted of rioting in Vancouver.

The most recent examples include the 2001 Canada Day riot in Edmonton and the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver — the last time the Canucks played for the Stanley Cup.

In both of those cases, convicted rioters received a wide range of sentences, from more than a year in jail to probation orders and suspended sentences that avoided jail entirely.

In Vancouver, while the police initially blamed the riot on "anarchists and criminals," the force's chief later conceded that many of the rioters were young people who had no history in the criminal justice system.

At the very least, Gottardi says judges will be extremely careful not to be influenced by harsh rhetoric from politicians and police chiefs.

"The premier and the executive can say whatever they like about how fast they want these cases to move through the system or what particular type of punishment they'd like to see," says Gottardi.

"But at the end of the day, you have an independent prosecution service that is gong to be deciding which charges should go ahead, and then you have an independent judiciary that's deciding the appropriate sentence."

Some of the accused rioters have already made public apologies, even turning themselves in to police in the days and weeks that followed.

Irvin Waller, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says judges may take those expressions of remorse into account when crafting sentences, but he says there may be other ways rioters can pay back society without spending time in jail.

Waller notes an independent report into the riot included a recommendation that authorities consider restorative justice, which focuses on ensuring offenders recognize the harm they have done and learn from the experience, rather than simply imprisoning them.

The report's authors said such measures could include mediation, sentencing circles or restorative conferences with victims, offenders, their families and community representatives.

Waller says judges have an opportunity to find creative ways to deal with rioters in a country where restorative justice or restitution is rarely used.

"I think there's an option here for the courts to innovate," says Waller, author of the book "Less Law, More Order: The Truth about Reducing Crime."

"Someone says they're sorry? Well, prove to me you're sorry. You may get some offenders with a way to prove that: 'I've paid for the damage that I did, I've gone to the media and apologized.'"

While the premier was quick to call for harsh punishment soon after the riot, the province's attorney general is now declining to comment on what sentences Crown prosecutors might seek.

Shirley Bond turned down an interview request, but said in a statement that "the Crown will seek appropriate sentences based on the individual and the charge."

For George Moen, owner of the Vancouver-based coffee chain Blenz, the exact sentence is less important.

The Blenz outlet next to Ristorante Da Gino was ransacked during the riot as the coffee shop's terrified workers hid in a storage closet. The damage was so severe, the shop was closed for two months and Moen says staff are still dealing with the fear they experienced that night.

Moen has launched a lawsuit against dozens of John and Jane Does, and hopes to attach real names to those defendants soon.

But Moen says he's not out for vengeance — not through his own lawsuit, and not in the criminal system.

He just wants the rioters to own up to what they did, whatever form that takes.

"Justice would be every person who did something wrong faces the consequences," says Moen.

"You're going to be charged, you're going to be embarrassed, you're going to be pulled out of classes and jobs. It's going to take time, and their fate is going to be unknown. They're going to be like, 'This isn't a fun process to keep worrying about what's going to happen to me.'"

Moen also knows that some of the rioters have already started to see those consequences, losing jobs, having their faces posted to social media websites, and facing ridicule from their peers.

Not long after the riot, Moen said he received a telephone call from one of them.

"I knew who this person was and what this person did. We had a good conversation. I said, 'How's it going?' And they said, "I had a bad day,' and I said, 'Yup, you did.' And I said, 'I bet it's not a lot of fun at home,' and they said, 'No."

"They're already being punished, they've lost jobs, they've lost sponsorships. There's a lot of what I would call peer justice, and they're going to have to live with it."

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