Six months in jail for serial bike thief - but prison term highlights sentencing disparity

Does the law take a harsher view of crimes against the bicycle than crimes against the person riding it?

by Simon_MacMichael   September 7, 2012  

Convicted bike thief John Chaplin (picture - British Transport Police)

A serial bike thief operating at railway stations in Essex has been sentenced to a total of six months' imprisonment after pleading guilty to four counts of theft at Southend Magistrates' Court last month. John Chaplin, aged 56 and from Basildon, had received a prison sentence in October last year after being convicted on similar charges. The case does however highlight the impression that there is a discrepancy in sentencing between cases involving property and those involving someone's death, at least where cyclists are involved.

The court was told that Chaplin used bolt cutters hidden in his rucksack to cut through locks and steal bikes with a combined value of £1,550 from Benfleet and Leigh on Sea stations on four separate occasions between March and June this year.

After analysing evidence including CCTV footage, British Transport Police (BTP) realised the same man was responsible for each theft, and officers at Southend station identfied Chaplin as the culprit.

Besides four consecutive sentences of six weeks' imprisonment relating to each count of theft, he received a further two weeks due to non-compliance with conditions relating to his previous sentence for bike theft.

BTP Detective Sergeant Santi Sende said: “Chaplin was no stranger to taking bikes from stations. Using practised techniques, it would take him just two minute for him to approach the racks, remove the bike and ride off.

“However, he was also no stranger to our officers, who had many dealings with him last year. Thanks to clear CCTV stills obtained through our investigations, we were able to quickly recognise Chaplin and arrest him.

“Cycle thefts cause enormous inconvenience and real upset to the victims who are not only hit financially by the thefts, but were forced to make alternative arrangements for travelling to and from their homes until replacement cycles could be purchased.”

c2c Managing Director Julian Drury added: “This case shows that the security systems in place at our stations can make a real difference. We’re pleased that our close cooperation with the British Transport Police has led to a successful outcome, and the real winners here are c2c’s passengers.”

BTP added that its officers regularly conduct cycle surgeries at railway stations throughout the country to give securty tips and provide bike marking and tagging. Details of upcoming events are publicised on its Twitter stream.

While most cyclists will be only too happy to see a bike thief get jail time, this sentence does once again highlight the seeming disconnection between the way crimes against property and crimes against the person are dealt with by the British legal system.

Earlier this week we reported on the case of Michael Lundstram who was sentenced to eight months' custody - just two months more than Chaplin - for fatally injuring a woman cyclist and then hiding in some bushes while she lay dying in the road.

Yesterday we reported on the case of Transport Minister Simon Burns, who was fined £400 after admitting a charge of careless driving following an incident in which a cyclist's neck was broken in two places.

Earlier this year, we reported on several cases in which motorists found guilty of causing cyclists' deaths - including those of Pat Kenny and Group Captain Tom Barrett - escaped a custodial sentence altogether, with sentencing guidelines often restricting the severity of the punishment the courts can impose.

Even where a prison sentence is handed down, the impression is that in the majority of cases that is more to do with aggravating factors such as driving without insurance, failure to stop or drink-driving rather than the fact someone has been killed.

It would seem that in certain cases the law takes a harsher view of crimes against the bicycle than crimes against the person riding it.

16 user comments

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What did he do with the bikes? He either dumped them or sold them, but if he sold them, who's buying?

posted by bazzargh [146 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:12


There are two concepts affecting the sentencing levels here. One is intent and the other is repeated offences.

Many of the cases of drivers causing harm are charged as 'careless driving' with a lower level of intent needed. It's rare (and difficult to prove) that a driver deliberately ran into a cyclist and so the offences are charged at a lower level, resulting in a lower sentence.

In this case, it is also a function of the serial offending. None of the cases I've read about of causing harm by careless/reckless driving seem to make reference to any previous offences or a prolonged pattern of behaviour. General disregard for the law over a period of time is something the courts take very seriously, and it is reflected in the sentencing.

The real issue here seems to be the requirement for proving the required level of intent/awareness of the offence being committed - it makes it very difficult to prosecute driving offences according to the level of harm they cause. That's why people argue for strict liability....

posted by step-hent [714 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:35


The guy we reported on in the North Wales case had already been banned once from driving, had no insurance and was driving an unroadworthy car… that seems like a repeat pattern of behaviour to me. He got 8 months for leaving a woman he'd fatally injured dying in the road.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
7th September 2012 - 15:12


I suppose there's some consolation in the fact he wasn't congratulated by the judge on his bravery while stealing the bikes.


antonio's picture

posted by antonio [1096 posts]
7th September 2012 - 15:21


Cut his hands off. Then he won't do it again.

posted by londonplayer [671 posts]
7th September 2012 - 16:17


Could have been worse. a guy in Darlington crashed his pickup into 2 other cars whilst on his phone.

Despite having 11pts already, his lawyer pleaded hardship, and give the guy 6 more and did NOT ban him.

The courts seem to be a complete lottery, and extremely lenient towards bad and danerous drivers with form.
Without question the driver in Wales should have gone down for a lot longer.

posted by gazza_d [394 posts]
7th September 2012 - 17:12


The more of this sort of thing I read the more I think it should be an eye for an eye. You ran down a cyclist? You're made to ride along while someone rams into you in a 4x4. There, justice served. You repeatedly nick people's bikes? You have you method of transport removed, bus pass, car, legs, whatever.

posted by Jonathing [62 posts]
7th September 2012 - 17:38


There is clearly significant political reluctance to impose custodial sentences on drivers for careless/dangerous driving, as drivers vote (in most cases at least). Consequently, sentences for cycling-related property offences of this sort can seem out of line.

Recognising this, part of the answer may lie in revised sentencing guidelines which mandate a ban for such offences, at least for recidivists.

Another part may be to dust off the medieval concept of deodand whereby an item which is used in the commission of a crime is forfeit to the Crown. (NB: Originally it was just where the item involved led to the death of an individual but it could be broadened in scope.) Now if you knew that a conviction for careless driving would, as a minimum, mean the loss of your beloved BMW, that might presumably change your attitude?

One drawback of course is that, to be fair, the rule would need to apply equally to cyclists. And the loss of a bike is of course something which many of us may find difficult to countenance, especially (say) for the "victimless crime" of running red lights....

posted by RichardM [1 posts]
7th September 2012 - 18:29


londonplayer wrote:
Cut his hands off. Then he won't do it again.

You'd just find him at the next Paralympics - stealing bikes.

posted by Cauld Lubter [125 posts]
7th September 2012 - 19:24


courts have always, generally, given heavier penalties for crimes against property versus crimes against the person. the whole legal system is more about property rights than personal ones.

Really, though?

posted by workhard [393 posts]
7th September 2012 - 20:50


Interesting comment, step-hent. I think it's good that he received a significant sentence for this (albeit for repeat offending, etc.): I get the impression that bike theft is often not taken particularly seriously - stealing a car of equal value is likely to be perceived as a much more serious crime by the police and the public. (For something slightly less anecdotal, see this post that discusses the economic theory of bike crime.)

But I wonder if there's also an argument that crimes like bike theft are committed by 'them', whereas running over a cyclist is usually done by 'us'. We (the public, the court) feel empathy towards the offender and don't want to judge someone too harshly when we believe it could well be us in the dock. (See also high and low courts, though that's perhaps part of a larger argument.)

Intent and previous offences are of course important, but, like a knife, a car can be a dangerous weapon and should be handled as such. I can use knives in my kitchen perfectly safely and productively, but it's unlikely a judge would look favourably on me if I decide to use them as part of my juggling-while-descending-an-escalator act and seriously injure someone, no matter how good my previous character (and even if the sun were in my eyes).

posted by meloncholy [3 posts]
7th September 2012 - 21:55


workhard wrote:
courts have always, generally, given heavier penalties for crimes against property versus crimes against the person. the whole legal system is more about property rights than personal ones.

Too right, one guy has just been jailed for five years for trying to blackmail Bernie Eccleston, justice is a joke for some.


antonio's picture

posted by antonio [1096 posts]
7th September 2012 - 22:07


These guy's are just scum like the toerags who buy from them.

lesliejames's picture

posted by lesliejames [44 posts]
8th September 2012 - 11:24


You beat me to it! Cut his legs off as well then he won't ride them either. Devil

posted by JohnMartin [16 posts]
8th September 2012 - 14:57


I reported a motorcyclist in 2011 for dangerous driving and harassment. The motorcyclists behaviour was done with intent and supported by video (helmetcam)evidence.

The police or CPS chose to ignore the behaviour and charged the motorcyclist with riding without insurance.

It seems that wilfully dangerous driving and threatening behaviour is permissible in the eyes of the law.

posted by ron611087 [144 posts]
9th September 2012 - 10:21


I logged a woman using her mobile phone on my helmet cam but the police are not interested.

Mixte Rider

posted by adriank999 [83 posts]
9th September 2012 - 11:41