Police stations are very intimidating places. When you enter a station, it is almost as if all your civil rights freeze.
If you try to speak back to an officer, you are liable to be accused of obstructing justice. If you question the conduct or any officer, you are likely to be silenced. If you refuse to be photographed, you can be manhandled.
If you are vociferous in defending your rights, you can be accused of being abusive. If you demand to be told the reasons for your arrest, you will probably end up being thrown in the lock ups.
It is for these reasons that Guyanese have become very timid when dealing with the police. As a consequence, their rights are consistently abused within police stations.
The police treat their stations as their kingdoms. Members of the public, when on the lawmen’s turf, have to abide by the police’s rules even when these rules are in breach of the “Judges Rules”.
The “Judges Rules” are administrative guidelines about how the police should conduct themselves when dealing with members of the public, including undertaking arrests and questioning. But in Guyana, these are often either ignored or bypassed or observed in the breach.
The “Judges Rules” require persons to be told of the offences for which they are being arrested. After a person is charged, it limits the grounds upon which they can be further questioned.
In the case of Shabadine Peart v the Queen, the Privy Council quoted the relevant section of the “Judges Rules” which limited such questioning. The section states as follows:
“It is only in exceptional cases that questions relating to the offence should be put to the accused person after he has been charged or informed that he may be prosecuted. Such questions may be put where they are necessary for the purpose of preventing or minimising harm or loss to some other person or to the public or for clearing up an ambiguity in a previous answer or statement.”
The issue of a right to a phone call may be something, which is allowed in the United States, as shown in the movies. But it is not clear whether such a right exists in Guyana.
The right to legal counsel is also an issue, which requires judicial clarification in light of Thornhill v. the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago.
Many persons are ignorant of their rights and this is responsible for their coyness when entering police stations. Many years ago, the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers issued publications, which sought to enlighten persons of their rights and how to deal with certain situation such as being arrested by the police.
One publication, “The Law and You”, advised that, “If you are arrested without a warrant, you must be told, in simple language, the reason for your arrest. If you are not told why you are being arrested, you should ask. The police officer is duty bound to tell you unless you are caught re-handed so that an explanation is not needed or you make one impossible by resisting arrest. Even then, the officer must give the reason for the arrest as soon as possible.”
In practice, this hardly happens. The police operate as a law unto themselves and are extremely sensitive towards persons questioning their actions or insisting that their rights be respected. In a well-publicised incident, not so long ago, a traffic rank had great difficulties, in providing a reason for stopping a motorist.
When persons are either invited or arrested, they are often forced to stand or sit on benches in the police station while the investigating ranks take their own good time to process them. In many instances, persons are thrown in the lockups and kept for the statutory 72 hours in the hope, that out of frustration, they will confess or given in to pressure.
There needs to be a time-bound process concerning detention of arrested persons. A decision should be made immediately as to whether they will be detained and this decision should be subject to review after a certain amount of hours. It is unconscionable for persons to be held for long hours without cause or without being interviewed.
“Judges Rules” will help protect these citizens. “Judges Rules” lack the force of law but they do serve an important function in ensuring that citizens’ rights are not violated. The Minister of Public Security should make these rules legally enforceable. Citizens should not be intimidated when at police stations. There is nothing wrong with arrested persons demanding their rights. There is nothing wrong with arrested persons expressing their perception of prejudice or bias on the part of the police, regardless of whether this is true or not. People have a right to their opinions, however misguided.
People also have a right to speak out against what they see as police misconduct, once they are not being disorderly. Speaking out does not automatically translate to disorderly conduct. Unless they do so, police stations will continue to be frightening places.
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