POLICE Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher has been given 28 days to make a decision on firearm dealer Towfeek Ali’s applications for firearms import permits.
Justice Kevin Ramcharan made the order and also declared that her continuing failure to make a decision on Ali’s 2022 applications to import ammunition was unlawful, on the basis of unreasonable and inordinate delay.
The judge did not order compensation, as he held there was no breach of Ali’s constitutional rights and since a decision had not yet been made, he was not entitled to any, because it was premature.
In his lawsuit, Ali, who runs the Firearms Training Institute (FTI), in Chaguanas, maintained that in the past his dealership had imported millions of rounds of ammunition of various calibres and thousands of firearms. He also holds weapon-training courses for licensed firearm users.
Through his business, has sold firearms and ammunition to hunters, farmers, sport shooters, the police service, the Defence Force, security companies, private individuals and the South Trinidad Rifle Association and supplied firearms and ammunition to the Agriculture Ministry’s praedial larceny unit and the Airports Authority.
However, the commissioner decided to halt the processing of applications for import permits by all firearm dealers to ensure all weapons and ammunition previously imported were accounted for, her defence said.
Her decision was further based on allegations of corruption between October 2020 and August 2021; information from the Stanley John report of a “a thriving well-oiled, white-collar criminal enterprise being conducted under the nose of the Commissioner of Police”; results from the 2022 audit of the police service’s firearms unit; an absence of data from dealers; the importation of large quantities of ammunition – some 57.2 million rounds in 2020; irregularities in the importation; information that 100 licensed firearms had been used in crimes and 30, which were imported by dealers, found in the possession of people who did not have licences, as well there being civilians permitted to carry multiple firearms and have large amounts of ammunition.
The ruling also set out the process of accounting for firearms and ammunition, which, it said, has been ongoing since June 2023.
According to the judgment, Ali and his dealership sought to import over 3.6 million rounds of ammunition is for resale purposes, of which 820,000 rounds are 12 and 16-gauge
cartridges for hunting purposes, and which include 60,000 rounds of high-powered military-grade ammunition.
In his ruling, Ramcharan said the Firearms Act did not confer any right to lawfully possess and import firearms, ammunition and other related items, so the commissioner was not obliged to grant a licence to a dealer because they were in the business of selling firearms and ammunition.
“ It is the court’s view that the defendant is entitled to consider the wider state of the 'industry,' the state of firearm-related crimes in TT, whether the claimants are in compliance with the requirements under the act.
“The court, therefore, holds that the defendant was entitled to ‘pause’ the grant of licences as she did.”
He also said the act was exclusionary in nature rather than inclusionary.
“This is no doubt because Parliament, the arm of the State responsible for creating laws, has viewed the widespread availability of these items as inimical to the safety and wellbeing of the country.”
However, on the question of delay, he was of the view that it was not appropriate for a decision-maker to put off making a decision indefinitely without any indication as to when it might be made.
“The court notes that since the commencement of the exercise, many of the issues have begun to resolve themselves and it appears from the evidence that the defendant is in a better position now of understanding where firearms and ammunition issued by licensed dealers are located.
“It is, therefore, not plausible for the defendant to state that it is not possible to give an indication as to when applications may be determined.”
He said he understood that in the beginning, it may have been that the commissioner could not give a realistic estimate of the time it would take to complete the exercise, but now, “it cannot be that the defendant cannot give an estimate based on how the work has progressed as to when a decision can be made...
“Communication with applicants as to the reason for the delay in the applications for licences would, in the court’s view, be appropriate in light of the exercise and the lengthy delay it would no doubt cause.”
The commissioner was chided for seeking to downplay the fact that Ali and FTI were operating a business as a dealer in firearms and ammunition, and that the delay was affecting the viability of their business.
The judge said, “The fact of the matter is that firearms and ammunition in this country are issued to lawful holders of firearms user’s licences by businesses.
“The system relies on these businesses in order to function properly. In the circumstances, it is incumbent on her to consider the impact her non-decision-making would have on these businesses.
“There was an indication as to why no decision had been made, but no indication as to when it might be made...It is the court’s view that this simply isn’t good enough. While it is impractical and undesirous (sic) for the defendant to indicate that steps are being taken and yet to be taken to put things in place to bolster the process of granting licences, it is still incumbent on a decision-maker, where he cannot practically make a decision, especially where the decision to provide realistic estimates as to when a decision might be made.
“It may not be possible to meet this estimate, but it is more desirable than just leaving an applicant in limbo, especially where it affects their business.”
Ramcharan also said there was nothing in the evidence to justify the delay of over a year in processing applications.
Ali was represented by Anand Beharrylal, KC, Kiel Taklalsingh, Asif Hosein Shah and Nyree Alfonso. The commissioner was represented by Russell Martineau, SC, Tamara Toolsie and Anala Mohan.