Santa Claus denies illegal entry

The new Criminal Trespass Act has now caught out an Old Age traveller. Bill Hartston reports

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Mr Santa Claus appeared before the court on various charges including illegal entry, handling stolen goods, flying an aircraft without an internationally recognised pilot's licence, flying while under the influence of drink, impersonating a minister of the church with intent to gain illegal access to residential premises, and parking a reindeer in a built-up area without hazard-warning lights.

Mr George Sleighman QC, appearing for the defence, moved for the dismissal of all charges on the grounds of goodwill to all men. The judge dismissed his application.

The principal charge of illegal entry centred on an interpretation of the 1996 amendment to the Criminal Trespass Act. The prosecution's case that Mr Claus had effected ingress to a number of residential properties by means of various chimneys was not contested, but while this might previously have been no more than a civil misdemeanour, illicit entry, under the terms of the amendment, whether or not there is intent to commit a felony, now constitutes a criminal act. The prosecution further maintained that the sack of toys found in Mr Claus's possession was stolen goods and Mr Claus's stated intention to distribute said toys as "Christmas presents" was therefore a felonious act per se. The accused maintained that the toys were not stolen goods, but had been made by his "little helpers in Lapland", but he was unable to explain the "Made in Taiwan" labels attached to most of them.

The prosecution further claimed that the accused was also known as St Nicholas, and in that guise was well known to be the patron saint of thieves. The judge warned counsel against hearsay evidence and ordered the remark to be struck from the record.

Maintaining that his client had a full answer to all charges, Mr Sleighman asked the jury to concentrate on two principal questions: Did Mr Claus have grounds for believing that he had been invited on to the premises, and even if he did not have such grounds, did he not have a perfectly legal right of way down the chimney? On the first point, witnesses from neighbouring properties had admitted that they left mince pies and glasses of sherry at the foot of their chimneys on Christmas Eve, as an implied invitation for "Father Christmas" to visit. (On the troublesome issue of the defendant's true name, Mr Claus agreed that he was frequently known by the name "Father Christmas", but denied ever having taken steps to encourage this deception. The charge of impersonating a minister of the church was accordingly dropped.) Mr Sleighman insisted that his client, having found sherry and mince pies at Nos 42, 44 and 46 Pagan Avenue, had been behaving perfectly reasonably when he assumed there must be some at No 48 as well. Indeed, he had no means of ascertaining whether or not he had been invited, other than to effect ingress down the chimney in order to discover whether or not sherry and pies were awaiting him. Furthermore, Mr Claus had obtained admission to the house by this means on every Christmas Eve "for as far back as he could remember" and therefore had established a right of way under common law. The prosecution, however, doubted that a common-law right of way could be established by a journey made only once every year. Mr Sleighman maintained that the journey in question was made with absolute regularity, however infrequently, and therefore was caught within the common-law definition.

Finally, Mr Sleighman asked whether his client, an elderly gentleman, who had, for reasons associated with his professional duties, not had much sleep, who had imbibed - out of politeness, rather than indulgence - considerable quantities of sherry, and who, at the best of times, did not know his Lapland from his Taiwan, could reasonably have been expected to distinguish number 48 Pagan Avenue from numbers 46 and 50, from the sight of their roofs alone, in the dead of night. Particularly when the rear light on his lead reindeer had failed.

The jury retired to consider its verdict.

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