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A disturbance of the peace by several persons, assembled and acting with a common intent in executing a lawful or unlawful enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner.

Riot, rout, and Unlawful Assembly are related offenses, yet they are separate and distinct. A rout differs from a riot in that the persons involved do not actually execute their purpose but merely move toward it. The degree of execution that converts a rout into a riot is often difficult to determine.

An unlawful assembly transpires when persons convene for a purpose that, if executed, would make them rioters, but who separate without performing any act in furtherance of their purpose. For example, when a restaurant owner refused to serve a certain four customers and barred them from entering the establishment, the four men remained in front of the doors of the restaurant and blocked the entrance to all other customers. Although a riot did not result from their actions, the men were arrested and convicted of unlawful assembly.

Inciting to riot is another distinct crime, the gist of which is that it instigates a breach of the peace, even though the parties might have initially assembled for an innocent purpose. It means using language, signs, or conduct to lead or cause others to engage in conduct that, if completed, becomes a riot.

Conspiracy to riot is also a separate offense. In one case, the leader of a small Marxist group took to the streets preaching revolution and organized resistance to lawful authority. Cursing the police, he spoke about how to fight and kill them and generally advocated violent means to gain political ends. The court ruled that a person who agrees with others to organize a future riot and who commits an Overt Act in conformity with the agreement is guilty, not of riot, but of conspiracy to riot.

In legal usage, the term mob is practically synonymous with riot or with riotous assembly. A federal court held that night riders were a mob and that their act of burning a building constituted the crime of riot.

Nature and Elements

Riot is an offense against the public peace and good order, rather than a violation of the rights of any particular person. It is not commonly applied to brief disturbances, even if malicious mischief and violence are involved in the commotion. For example, a lock company was picketed in a labor dispute. When the police attempted to escort some people through the picket line, a brief general commotion, some scuffling, and an exchange of blows took place. The police testified that the entire fracas lasted about "two or three minutes." The court held that the crime of riot does not apply to brief disturbances, even those involving violence, nor to disturbances that occur during the picketing accompanying a labor dispute.

The elements that comprise the offense are determined either by the Common Law or by the statute defining it. In some jurisdictions, the necessary elements are an unlawful assembly, the intent to provide mutual assistance against lawful authority, and acts of violence. Under some statutes, the elements are the use of force or violence, or threats to use force and violence, along with the immediate power of execution.

Other statutes provide that the essential elements are an assembly of persons for any unlawful purpose; the use of force or violence against persons or property; an attempt or threat to use force or violence or to do any unlawful act, coupled with the power of immediate execution; and a resulting disturbance of the peace.

The element of force or violence required under the common law means a defiance of lawful authority and the rights of other persons. Similarly the force or violence contemplated by the statutes is the united force of the participants acting in concert with the increased capacity to overcome resistance. The statutes further specify that the type of force and violence, not mere physical exertion, must threaten law-abiding nonparticipants.

Riotous Conduct

Riots can arise from any violent and turbulent activity of a group, such as bands of people creating an uproar and displaying weapons; wildly marching on a public street; violently disrupting a public meeting; threatening bystanders with displays of force; or forcibly destroying property along the way. In one case, striking orange pickers armed with clubs, metal cables, sticks, and other weapons rushed into an orange grove and assaulted nonstriking pickers. After the nonstrikers were driven out of the grove, the strikers overturned the boxes full of picked oranges and threw oranges and boxes at the nonstrikers. The court held this to be riotous conduct. When one city was wracked by racial disturbances, the court ruled that racial disorders constituted a general riot, or a series of riots, and that whether there was a single, identifiable group or a number of riotous groups was not significant when their one common purpose was to injure and destroy.

One of the most brutal riots in the United States was the Tulsa Race Riot. In May 1921, a white man from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was allegedly assaulted by an African American man. A white mob stormed the city's Greenwood neighborhood, a prosperous community that was predominantly African American, to find the alleged assailant. Over a two-day period, 35 city blocks in Greenwood were destroyed. Private homes, businesses, and even churches were burned down, and an estimated 300 people killed.

Number of Persons Necessary

The common law rule, and most of the statutes that define riot, require three or more persons to be involved. Some statutes fix the minimum number at two.

Purpose of Original Assembly

The jurisdictions differ on whether the original assembly must be an unlawful one. Some require premeditation by the rioters, but others prescribe that riots can arise from assemblies that were originally lawful or as a result of groups of persons who had inadvertently assembled.

Common Intent

A previous agreement or conspiracy to riot is not usually an element of a riot. A common intent, however, to engage in an act of violence, combined with a concert of action, is sometimes necessary. In one case, following a high school football game, a group of boys staged a "violent, brutal and indecent" assault on the color guard and band members of the visiting team. When the visitors attempted to leave, the attacks continued. On trial, the attackers claimed that the charge of riot did not apply to them because they had had no "common intent." The court held that "an intent is a mental state which can be inferred from conduct." They were found guilty of riot and the decision was affirmed on appeal.


When a riot arises from an unlawful act, such as an assault, terror need not be shown because in every riotous situation there are elements of force and violence that are by their very nature terrifying. When a riot arises from lawful conduct, terror must be shown. For example, if a group of neighbors decides to remove a Nuisance, such as a pile of malodorous garbage, which would be a lawful activity, but does so in a violent and tumultuous manner, terror would have to be shown before the conduct would constitute a riot. In 1999, the World Trade Organization (WTO) held a five-day meeting in Seattle, Washington. Some 45,000 protesters converged on the meeting, protesting the WTO's stand on everything from the environment to global business to Human Rights. What was supposed to be an organized mass movement quickly degenerated into a rampage through the city, in which buildings were vandalized, stores were looted, and police were attacked. Only one person need be alarmed to fulfill the terror requirement for a riot; in Seattle, the entire city was subjected to the terror.

Persons Liable

Principal rioters are those who are present and actively participate in the riot. All persons present who are not actually assisting in the suppression of the riot can be regarded as participants when their presence is intentional and tends to encourage the rioters.

Municipal Liability

In the absence of a statute, a Municipal Corporation, such as a city, town, or village, is not liable for injuries caused by mobs or riotous assemblages. Where statutes do impose liability, the particular statute determines the type of action one can institute against a city, town, or village.


There is never any justification for a riot. The only defense that can be claimed is that an element of the offense is absent. Participation is an essential element. Establishing that an individual's presence at the scene of a riot was accidental can remove any presumption of guilt.

Suppression of Riot

Private persons can, on their own authority, lawfully try to suppress a riot, and courts have ruled that they can arm themselves for such a purpose if they comply with appropriate statutory provisions concerning the possession of firearms or other weapons. Execution of this objective will be supported and justified by law. Generally every citizen capable of bearing arms must help to suppress a riot if called upon to do so by an authorized peace officer.

The state is primarily responsible for protecting lives and property from the unlawful violence of mobs. If the militia reports to civil authorities to help quash a riot, it has the same powers as civil officers and must render only such assistance as is required by civil authorities. During the WTO riot in Seattle, 600 state troopers and 200 members of the National Guard were called in to assist the overwhelmed Seattle police force.

In an emergency, and in the absence of constitutional restrictions, a governor can order the intervention of the militia to suppress a riot without complying with statutory formalities. When troops are ordered to quell a riot, they are not subject to local authorities but are in the service of the state.

Further readings

Brophy, Alfred L. 2002. Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconcilation. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gale, Dennis E. 1996. Understanding Urban Unrest: From Reverend King to Rodney King. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.


n. 1) technically a turbulent and violent disturbance of peace by three or more people acting together. 2) an assemblage of people who are out of control, causing injury, or endangering the physical safety of others and/or themselves, causing or threatening damage to property, and often violating various laws both individually and as a group. The common thread is that the people in a riot have the power through violence to break the public peace and safety, requiring police action. Often a riot is declared after the crowd has been informed by police officers that the people constitute an "unlawful assembly" and are ordered to "disperse" immediately (historically in England called "reading the riot act"). If the crowd does not disperse, its members become subject to arrest for the crime of rioting, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, or other separate crimes ranging from assault to unlawful possession of firearms.


noun affray, bedlam, brawl, breach of the peace, broil, commotion, confusion, disorder, disorderliness, ferment, fracas, fray, furor, hubbub, insurgence, insurrection, lawlessness, melee, outbreak, outburst, rebellion, revolt, row, rumpus, shindy, tumult, tumultus, turba, turmoil, unruliness, uprising, uproar, wild confusion
Associated concepts: disturbing the peace, inciting a riot
See also: anarchy, belligerency, bluster, brawl, commotion, disorder, embroilment, fracas, imbroglio, insurrection, outbreak, pandemonium, rebel, rebellion, sedition


a criminal offence in England under the Public Order Act 1986 if 12 or more persons use or threaten to use unlawful violence for a common purpose, causing people to fear for their safety. For Scotland, see MOBBING.

RIOT, crim. law. At common law a riot is a tumultuous disturbance of the peace, by three persons or more assembling together of their own authority, with an intent, mutually to assist each other 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.
     2. In this case there must be proved, first, an unlawful assembling; for if a number of persons lawfully met together; as, for example, at a fire, in a theatre or a church, should suddenly quarrel and fight, the offence is an affray and not a riot, because there was no unlawful assembling; but if three or more being so assembled, on a dispute occurring, they form into parties with promises of mutual assistance, which promises may be express, or implied from the circumstances, then the offence will no longer be an affray, but a riot; the unlawful combination will amount to an assembling within the meaning of the law. In this manner any lawful assembly may be converted into a riot. Any one who joins the rioters after they have actually commenced, is equally guilty as if he had joined them while assembling.
     3. Secondly, proof must be made of actual violence and force on the part of the rioters, or of such circumstances as have an apparent tendency to force and violence, and calculated to strike terror into the public mind. The definition requires that the offenders should assemble of their own authority, in order to create a riot; if, therefore, the parties act under the authority of the law, they may use any necessary force to enforce their mandate, without committing this offence.
     4. Thirdly, evidence must be given that the defendants acted in the riot, and were participants in the disturbance. Vide 1 Russ. on Cr. 247 Vin. Ab. h.t.; Hawk. c. 65, s. 1, 8, 9; 3 Inst. 176; 4 Bl. Com. 146 Com. Dig. h.t.; Chit. Cr. Law, Index, h.t. Roscoe, Cr. Ev. h.t.

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