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Apr 9, 2008

Police search rights not unlimited, says A.G.

Story PictureA search without a warrant. The tactic has grown more controversial as the police attempt to crack down on increasingly violent crime. News Five’s Janelle Chanona looks at the subject from a legal perspective and finds that just because cops say they’re looking for guns or drugs, it doesn’t mean they can do as they please.

Douglas Gill, Homeowner (January 12th, 2004)
“Somebody just call and say that man so and so, they have something against you. They right up there, they just break into your place at four in the morning while you are in your bed, and that’s really disturbing.”

Carolyn Westby, Homeowner (April 4th, 2008)
“I no gat drugs and guns da my house, I da wah school counsellor fi crying out loud. I help children. Everybody weh live yah work hard.””

Marian Alvarez Plunkett, Homeowner (August 8th, 2000)
“I have nothing to say if fi come and search my house. I know I’m clean, so I noh worry about who want search my house. Now I deh pan my job. You think dah joke fi lef yoh job and come out yah and meet all this scandal out yah?”

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Over the years, a number of irate homeowners have publicly complained about the popular practice of warrant-less searches. The officers always say it’s to look for guns and drugs but affected citizens say it’s nothing more than an invasion of privacy.

Wilfred Elrington, Attorney General
“It’s not an arbitrary thing you know. You have got to have good basis for your suspicion. In other words it’s not a police man looks at you and say well boy I think you have drugs in your house therefore I’m going to search it.”

Janelle Chanona
“But that’s how they act…”

Wilfred Elrington
“Yes but that is not correct. The reason this has happened so often is because we don’t have enough awareness in the society and people can’t afford it but those actions are that you can take legal action for.”

According to Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, anyone who feels wronged by the police can sue for damages incurred during an unlawful search. In section nine of the Belize Constitution, a citizen must consent to the “search of his person or property”. But the Constitution also makes “reasonable provision in the interest of defence, public safety and public order.” Under section 23 of the Firearm Act, the police are authorized to enter and search all premises of persons suspected of possessing or selling firearms and ammunition. Under sections 25 and 26 of Chapter 103 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the police are armed with similar powers to search for drugs. Elrington concedes that while the language of the legislation is broad, the intention of the law is clear.

Wilfred Elrington
“The law is there but it is not dispensed in an even way. So the problem is not so much the legislation as the way it is used. It’s really the people who implement the laws who are there to observe the laws and to enforce them. I think that’s where the problem is. There is not much in the law and you can see how the police operate.”

While it is evident some senior police are aware of their responsibilities under the law…

Maureen Leslie, Assistant Commissioner of Police (Jan 13th, 2004)
“We have done numerous searches and when we leave, people shouldn’t be mad at you, people shouldn’t be upset with the police because you searched their premises. We have a job to do, ma’am we have to search your place, starting with this room, you accompany me and I will search. You checked the clothes, you checked their pockets, you check the trousers, you check the all shoes to the bottom, you pull all the drawers, you take your time, you check but you don’t need to make a mess, and you should not leave the place in a mess.”

…the Attorney General believes the department’s rank and file need some shaking up.

Wilfred Elrington
“If you continue to do the same thing over and over expecting different results, you got to be crazy. There is a need for fundamental change in approach. I also think there’s a need for greater discretion being used today in the recruitment of constable, also in the recruitment of senior police officers. I think the time has come now when we should be getting the senior police officers, people from the rank of Inspector up, there should be at least six form graduates and we should constantly send them for training, constantly.”

The new government is promising to implement measures that would simultaneously improve police efficiency and community relations.

Wilfred Elrington
“We’ve got to work with them, this what we find, we’ve got to work with them and I think that if we could have a continuous dialogue with our people, I think what Belizeans need most, dialogue, understanding. You could understand for that for the police man it is not far-fetched for them to suggest that somebody tell then that the drugs are in that home or guns are in that home; guns are all over the place, drugs are all over the place. So it’s not inconceivable that it could be there.”

But at the end of the day, Elrington says the onus is on cops to take the oath to serve the public seriously.

Wilfred Elrington
“People like police officers, people like judges and magistrates should be very humble, should be very understanding because they have the power. They have the power to do all kinds of things. The policeman has the power to lock you up. Take away your freedom and I think in the exercise of that power you’ve got to be very judicious, it’s not the kind of power you exercise lightly.”

And Elrington’s reasons for promoting that attitude are more than philosophical. As a former defence attorney, he’s all too aware that citizens who sue for an unlawful search name the Attorney General as the first defendant. Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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