Last week, Jamaican Supreme Court Justice David Batts ruled that, under the Road Traffic Act, the police have no power to arbitrarily stop and search motor vehicles, and if they pursue this practice theyJamaica Police Stopping & Searching Illegal will be open to lawsuits.
Some Jamaican drivers have complained, with little avail, about the practice of the police stopping them for alleged traffic violations, and unnecessarily searching their vehicles.
However, while some motorists have accused officers of corrupt actions taken during these stops/searches, others, including Jamaicans visiting from the Diaspora, claim these searches seem fair and are often necessary.
Before Justice Batts made his ruling, the Jamaican police claimed the law gave them the power to stop and search vehicles, and that the practice has been of great help in apprehending criminals, and recovering illegal ammunition, stolen vehicles and a variety of stolen goods.
The justice also said that contrary to common belief, Section 58 of the Road Traffic Act does not give power to the police to stop and search vehicles without reasonable cause.
Rather, he explained that the act allows for the redirection of traffic or stopping of vehicles for the purposes of traffic flow or some reasonable purpose.
He further stated that in his judgment the police’s request for motor vehicle documents and drivers’ licenses should also be based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, or is about to be committed.
Moreover, the reasonable cause to suspect that an individual has, or is about to commit a crime must relate to the peculiar characteristics of the person, or the vehicle being driven, or the manner in which it is operated, or the information received.
Batts also stated that the Jamaican Constitution guarantees that Jamaicans are not subject to arbitrary or random searches.
He said, “It is still the law of this nation that persons under the Queen’s peace are entitled to freedom from search of their person or property, unless such a search is legally justified…It is not a lawful reason to stop and search a car based on the fact that cars with similar features are often stolen and used in the commission of crime.”
Several police officers have indicated that the ruling has caught them by surprise, and its implication requires further analysis.
A ranking officer said, “It would be inopportune to comment on the real implication of the judge’s ruling, before a total review by our legal representatives. There are some vague areas that need further legal interpretation.”
The police are to continue the random stop and search of motor vehicles, despite an acknowledgement by Commissioner Owen Ellington that he’s not aware how a recent High Court opinion may affect how the controversial practice is conducted.
“We will continue to do what we are doing and we will examine the ruling to see if it has any significant implication for how we operate. If there are any implications, we’ll advise our members accordingly,” Ellington told the media reporters.