Why was a homeless man jailed for pretending to run the London Marathon?

A homeless man who picked up a lost race number and “completed” the London Marathon has been jailed for 16 weeks.

Yesterday at Uxbridge magistrates’ court, Stanislaw Skupian (38) was sentenced by magistrates having pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing on 18 May to fraud, after he picked up a race card number dropped by runner Jake Halliday at the 23-mile mark and illicitly joined the race himself. He crossed the finish line and celebrated with the medal intended for Mr Halliday, who found himself removed from the race 300 metres from the Finish line when marshals spotted that he was not wearing a race number.

The Chair of the bench passing sentence told Skupian, a homeless father-of-one who had recently suffered a temporary breakdown in his mental health, “The offences are so serious [that] only a prison sentence will suffice”. 13 weeks’ imprisonment was passed, with three weeks’ imprisonment imposed consecutively for unrelated matters of theft.

The Chief Executive of the London Marathon, Nick Bitel, reportedly said that “justice has been done”. His apparent pleasure with the sentence was not matched by many people on social media, who expressed consternation at a mentally-unwell homeless man being squeezed into our bursting prisons for a non-violent offence.

So what the Dickens has gone on?

The offences

Stanislaw Skupian was charged with fraud by false representation, contrary to sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The “false representation” being, presumably, the implied representation that he was the rightful owner of Mr Halliday’s race number and was entitled to complete the race and claim the finishers’ medal. This offence carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court, or six months’ imprisonment in the magistrates’ court. He was sentenced to 13 weeks’ imprisonment.

He was also charged with three unrelated offences of theft. He was arrested at the multi-faith prayer room at Heathrow Airport, where he was found with items including a primary school worker’s identity card and a pink diary holding overtime hours worked by airline staff. It was said that Skupian viewed the airport as a temporary home and had picked up items discarded. This would amount to theft (referred to in court as “theft by finding”) under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968. He received three weeks’ imprisonment for these offences, to run consecutively to the 13 weeks imposed on the fraud (it is unclear whether this was one week consecutive for each of the three theft charges, or three weeks on each directed to run concurrently to each other, or some other mad configuration dreamed up by the magistrates).

He was further made subject to a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is the new replacement for the old-fashioned ASBO. These can be imposed where the court is satisfied that a defendant has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person, and where a Criminal Behaviour Order will help in preventing the defendant from acting in that way. In this case, the court deemed that banning the defendant from Heathrow Airport for three years, unless he has a pre-booked flight, was an appropriate use of that power.

 

The Sentencing Guidelines

To look at what sentence we might expect, we have to look at the Sentencing Guidelines, which are published by the Sentencing Council and which courts are required by law to follow. So let’s look at the Definitive Guideline for Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences. The seriousness of an offence is judged by considering the “culpability” of the offender and the “harm” caused by the offence.

On the Guideline for straightforward fraud, the first step is to assess culpability by reference to the below factors:

There are plainly no elements of “High culpability” in this case. It would appear, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that this was an opportunistic, one-off offence with very little planning, which points towards Lesser culpability.

Now we turn to the assessment of harm:

For fraud, you take as your starting point the financial loss to the victim. Here, it is very low indeed. The cost of entering the London Marathon ballot, at £39, is probably the closest financial value you can attach to this unusual offence (the value of the medal not being easily assessed due to it not being something purchasable on the open market). This puts us in the lowest category, Category 5.

But then we have to look at the impact upon the victim, to see whether it warrants the sentence being moved upwards. This is a slightly unusual case, because although (I expect) the charge would have been drafted with London Marathon as the nominal victim, the person most directly affected is arguably Jake Halliday. He was stopped 300 metres from the finishing line and told that he was not allowed to cross due to his number having fallen off. He had raised £49,000 for a charity, Bloodwise, and was prevented from completing the race, having run the best part of 26 miles, in the cruellest of circumstances. What was (one might expect) a lifetime ambition was snatched away. That no doubt had a considerable detrimental effect on him.

However. Can it really be suggested that Skupian was responsible for depriving Mr Halliday of his moment of glory? It was said in court (and seemingly not disputed) that he spied the discarded race identifier on the floor and saw an opportunity. He did not steal or otherwise remove the number from Mr Halliday. It does not appear that he watched it fall and swooped in. If, as the court apparently accepted, he had simply seen it on the ground, was the damage not already done? Perhaps he could have handed the card to an official, but it is unclear how it could have been reunited with Mr Halliday in order for him to have been able to complete the race. The London Marathon Final Instructions to runners emphasises the importance of taking care of the running number – “Duplicate numbers cannot be issued under any circumstances”. It is also stated that anybody taking part without a number will be removed from the race by marshals “before you cross the Finish line”. Once that number had fallen, it would appear (and I’ll be happily corrected if I’m mistaken) that the game was over for Jake Halliday.

Against this backdrop, it might realistically be argued that while Skupian exploited Mr Halliday’s misfortune, his criminal behaviour did not cause it. The anger and humiliation felt by Mr Halliday when he learned that somebody had claimed his number and completed the race in his stead may well be significant, but is it so great as to move the harm out of “Lesser impact”? I suppose it might. Just.

My assessment is that for these reasons, this case probably falls somewhere between, categories 4C and 5C:

We can see that the latter provides a starting point of a ‘Band B fine’, which equates to around 100% of somebody’s weekly income. The category range is a discharge – a slap on the wrist – up to a medium level community order. If the harm caused is deemed serious enough to lift it up to the next category, the starting point is a medium level community order. Still the category range does not extend to custody. In order to arrive at a category where a custodial term is available, the court would have to have assessed culpability as “B”. I find it tricky to see how this was done.

We then look at aggravating and mitigating factors:

 The defendant had a previous conviction for attempted theft. That was the only matter mentioned in court. So while it is a similar type of offence, this is hardly the kind of record which would seriously aggravate a defendant’s position to make the difference between custody and not-custody. No other aggravating features listed are relevant.

In mitigation, the court heard that the defendant has lived in the UK for 11 years. He suffered a neck injury in a serious car crash last year, forcing him to take sick leave from his catering job. His marriage broke down and he lost his home. Shortly before the race, he had suffered a “short, temporary breakdown in his mental state”. It was also submitted that he had committed the offence out of excitement, without fully appreciating that what he was doing was wrong.

Putting all this together, I’d say there’s more to mitigate his position than to aggravate it. This would mean moving below the starting point on the Guidelines.

We then have the issue of credit for guilty plea. He admitted the offence at the very first hearing, and so is entitled to one third off his sentence. This means that the magistrates must have taken a starting point of 20 weeks in order to arrive at a final sentence of 13 weeks for this offence.

[The thefts we shall put to one side as we do not know their value. What we can infer, however, is that they were considered significantly less serious than the fraud.]

 

Conclusion

Based on what we know, this appears to be a very harsh sentence. While this is not the type of fraud envisaged by those who drafted the Guidelines, it is difficult to see how a straightforward assessment of culpability and harm could lead a court to a starting point of 20 weeks for this single offence. The defendant has an automatic right to appeal his sentence to the Crown Court. I would not be surprised if he exercised it.

There are unknowns, of course. There would have been a Pre-Sentence Report prepared by the Probation Service, whose views would have informed the court’s. It may be that they were unable to offer any alternative to custody, although experience would dictate that a homeless man with a limited criminal record and mental health problems is the kind of person the Probation Service try to persuade the courts to let them help. It would be a sad day indeed if all that our justice system could offer to improve this man were two pointless months of incarceration.

I have written about magistrates before, including in my book, and one of my criticisms is that sometimes a sense of perspective is lacking when these non-legally qualified volunteers are sentencing offenders. Just because a power of imprisonment exists does not mean that it has to be used. This sentence, based on what we know, appears to be one such example. That it can be said that the offence was so serious that only a prison sentence can suffice is, with respect to the sentencing court, perverse. Courts often find ways to avoid immediate custody in cases which are far more serious, involving offenders with significantly worse records.

And I’ll seize on those words – “based on what we know” – to pirouette into a final flourish on my soapbox, if I may:

This case had received national media attention when Mr Skupian made his first appearance at court and pleaded guilty. It was plain to the court administration and to the magistrates that the outcome of this case would be widely reported. Yet still the magistrates did not see fit to publish written sentencing remarks explaining their decision.

This is a drum I have unapologetically beaten for some considerable time. Because while good court reporters should accurately reflect the full reasons given for a sentence passed, inevitably there will be occasions where something is missed in the hustle of a chaotic magistrates’ court list. Submissions and decisions as to where the case falls in the Sentencing Guidelines, for example, hold little interest to the average reader and may understandably not make it into the final copy, but to lawyers analysing and explaining the decision these can be critical.

Magistrates, judges and lawyers cannot complain that their remarks or decisions have been unfairly portrayed if they don’t bother to do the basics. It would have taken an extra ten minutes, one supposes, for the remarks to have been committed to paper, copied and distributed before being read out, and then everybody would be able to see how and why the decision was reached.

As it is, we are once again left groping in the dark, or at best the dusk, in trying to understand how our criminal justice system is – or in this case is apparently not – working.

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24 thoughts on “Why was a homeless man jailed for pretending to run the London Marathon?

  1. Was the poor “criminal” black by any chance. At the very least he appears to have been an immigrant, and as we all now know, these are scum and to be treated as such. You could consider it institutional racism which I have no doubt is pronounced in magistrates. What a miserable country we have become.

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  2. I had wondered if he received a sentence equivalent to ‘time-served’. It appears he didn’t quite. Looking at the reports he was charged on 18 May. As he was of no fixed abode, presumably he appeared in Court very soon thereafter. He was then remanded to the sentencing date.

    On that basis he has presumably now done 5 weeks of the 6.5 he would have to serve and would likely have been released before any appeal was heard.

    Certainly an odd case though!

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  3. As a non-legally qualified volunteer, a sense of perspective should be irrelevant in determining the category of offence – it comes into its own when assessing mitigating/aggravating features. I broadly agree with your assessment of the offence, although I would have come in at the lower end. Perhaps even considering a conditional discharge. One wonders what input the legal adviser had in the justices’ deliberations and whether there was any challenge to their conclusions?
    One positive to take out of this: should the likes of Martin Sorrel ever find himself before this bench, he may just get what he deserves!

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  4. Yet another case where there is evidence of a prior head injury in conjunction with ‘unusual’ behaviour. I just find it disheartening. The only satisfaction I can derive is that at least someone has taken the time and trouble (again) to set out what the court should be expected to consider in passing sentence. The government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy is unlawful in all it’s forms – this is another example…

    Secret’s demand for better transparency from the decision makers here is no more than asking for a defendant to be treated with ‘unqualified respect and transparency’. Then you ask how no record of the hearing is available – or at least none that we can access? #thelawisbroken

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  5. I suspect that a lot of magistrates will follow this blog, and hopefully this sort of detailed clear analysis will pay dividends even without the system itself being “fixed”.

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  6. I still do not understand the conviction of fraud. Going by the Fraud Act 2006, the person must (b)intend, by making the representation (i)to make a gain for himself or another, or (ii)to cause loss to another or to expose another to a risk of loss.

    But as you pursuasively argue, the real runner had already lost his race number and so Skupian’s actions had no influence on the subsequent removal of the real runner from the race.

    So it cannot be argued that Skupian intented to cause a loss to the real runner. Nor can it be argued, I think, that falsely pretending to have finished the race makes a ‘gain’. What is gained? An entry in the finisher’s list of someone else’s name and a medal of no real value.

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  7. Guilty, your honor! I ran the 198x Cherry Blossom 10 Miler with somebody else’s race number: a couple known to a friend of mine had won the lottery to enter, but then had to be out of town. My friend ran with the wife’s number, I with the husband’s. It is not impossible that I ran a Peach Tree 10K under similarly false colors, but once one is accustomed to this life of crime the details are easily forgotten I hope and trust that the statute of limitations has expired.

    If Mr. Halliday’s lifetime ambition is to run a marathon, then the chances are very good that he can accomplish it soon. Only the elite marathoners run so hard that one or two a year is the ceiling of possibility. If Mr. Halliday’s lifetime ambition is to finish the London Marathon, then the decent thing would be for the London Marathon organizers to arrange that he get an automatic entry for the next running. (Were I one of them, I might wish to staple the tag to his shirt–in years of running races I generally used four safety pins and never lost a tag.)

    Mr. Skupian should get a stern talking-to and have to forfeit his finisher’s medal. Anything more is ridiculous.

    For those visitors to the blog who are not versed in running, I will mention that in the US unregistered runners are referred to as “bandits”. Does English law mention “bandit” as a category of criminal?

    (AliB: The name Stanislaw Skupian suggests Krakow far more than Kampala.)

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  8. Pingback: Why was a homeless man jailed for pretending to run the London Marathon? — The Secret Barrister – seftonblog

  9. I volunteer as a magistrate so given your views I feel somewhat nervous about commenting even though in general I support your conclusion! The guidelines are very useful and I think in general have produced much more consistent sentencing even though the press ( just as in the crown court) will tend to concentrate on the sentences that fall outside the guidelines or alternatively those that have stayed within the guidelines but they feel are too soft. I would love to be able to give written reasons ( with the guidance of our legal advisor as we must never forget we aren’t legally qualified…..although being legally qualified doesn’t guarantee infallibility) but the pressure to avoid delays is immense. Courts have closed, resources have been cut and it is a constant battle to ensure defendants, and just as importantly victims and witnesses, have cases resolved within a reasonable time. I always try to go through the guidelines and out thought process when I sentence for the benefit of the defendant and the non existent press reporter but it won’t be the same as written reasons. Finally I know you disagree but my experience over many years is that 99% if JPs take the role and their oath seriously. The time we spend discussing fairness, guidelines, rehabilitating offenders when retired to consider sentence gives me reassurance that bad apples are fairly few. 1 is too many but no profession whether lawyer or lay is perfect, I’ve seen some amazing lawyers but also a few ghastly ones

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  10. The story rather reminds me of those old tales of people being transported for stealing vegetables. The magistrate’s claim that “only a prison sentence will suffice” would seem ridiculous even without your full commentary and analysis of tariffs. It definitely looks as if this man has been sentenced as a result of who he is, and what he has done in the past, rather than the offence.

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  11. Fresh off from unexplaining the Charlie Alliston showtrial, which was clearly a malicious prosecution benefiting the motor-haulage industry as part of a broad scale perjury campaign to seed all sorts of animosity in the minds of juries unconvened, whilst ushering in legal changes to criminalise a victim group, the SB steps up to unexplain how illegal running is a sin worthy of criminal prosecution.

    The ends tend to justify the means, and the end here slots perfectly into a policy of cleansing undeserving economic rejects from Heathrow terminals.

    You also might have been unexplaining to friends and followers lately why bumping into a horse whilst riding a bike is worthy of international coverage, where as driving dangerously into two horse riders is kept quiet and unprosecuted. It’s like the biggest capital interests can not only fix the news but also the outcomes of legal proceedings, but no, no, none of this is understandable we must “grope in the dark” for answers. (That reminds me of another non-proceeding, whatever happened to the non-prosecution of “open secret” Savile? Unknowable, unexplainable, just an act of God or maybe the divine right of kings.)

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-40134629

    Say it with me SB, “the legal system is fixed in favour of private interests”.

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  12. As usual…an excellent piece. I was worried, a few weeks ago, that you had finally reached the end of your tether with the Criminal Bar and the Criminal Justice system …and were going to give up. Good to see that you haven’t. Keep fighting the good fight!

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  13. I absolutely agree with your article. This sentence is completely over the top for the offence. I saw the report in a Scottish newspaper and couldn’t believe the sentence handed down, which is why I googled the story to find out more and came across your article. I hope this man appeals the decision and a more appropriate sentence is given, reflective of the actual offence. It was unfortunate that the gentleman who had run most of the marathon wasn’t able to finish it but it seems that would have been the outcome regardless of what this man did.
    An example of very poor quality legal decision making.

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  14. I’ll start with the old joke: “this is an appeal from a decision of Uxbridge Magistrates Court. There are other grounds of appeal.”

    John Mortimer, through the voice of Rumpole, used to refer to Uxbridge as West Middlesex Mags and remarked about that court being 500 years behind the times

    The Rillington Place serial murderer, John Reginald Halliday Christie, got a (hard labour) sentence for handling and theft of a couple of bicycles back in the 1920s that was described in the local press as being harsh. Plus ça change.

    I have the misfortune from time to time of going back to that court when my HCA diary is not full. Amongst other things I recall an air rage allegation where the presiding magistrate refused to believe that an air stewardess would know, let alone make up the use, of the word “wanker” (supposedly used by my American client). Anyone ever come across an American using that word?

    But seriously, this a shocking indictment of how we treat people with MH difficulties in the criminal justice system. Court clerks can’t always be blamed for not reining in the court, what with the bean-counters insistence on filling in forms and meetings targets.

    And shame on the CPS to pursue this case. We are all in danger of that little chemical switch in our head clicking in the wrong direction leading to MH difficulties.

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  15. In view of the man’s homelessness, perhaps the intent was to put a roof over his head for a few weeks. A well intentioned act of charity.

    The truth, of course, is that Britain has for a long time criminalised being poor. My country – Australia – wouldn’t exist otherwise. This case is a fine example of how it is done: the poor get the book thrown at them for the most trivial things.

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