Judge: Impose fines on police officers who fail to attend court, revise criminal rules

Justice Frank Seepersad -
Justice Frank Seepersad -

A HIGH COURT judge has again advocated for police officers who breach their authority by failing to attend court cases fixed for trial without a proper reason should be made to “pay fines from their pockets.”

He has also suggested an amendment of the criminal procedure rules to empower magistrates (now district court judges) to impose sanctions when court orders have not been complied with, otherwise, they will remain “a tiger without teeth.”

Justice Frank Seepersad made the call on May 20 when he dismissed the novel claim of a Chaguanas man who challenged a delay in his case at the magistrates’ court after he was held for allegedly driving under the influence.

Stefan Hearn wanted the High Court to give guidance on the application of the criminal procedure rules as it relates to the allotment of resources to cases and repeated adjournments.

Hearn’s trial before Magistrate Rehana Ali had been stayed pending the High Court’s decision on his judicial review claim.

In his lawsuit, Hearn’s attorneys Lee Merry and Kelston Pope contended the magistrate was wrong to grant the prosecution’s request for an adjournment of his trial on October 6, 2023.

They argued the magistrate acted illegally by adjourning his trial. Hearn was charged with the summary offence in July 2020.

A trial date was set for October 6, but when the matter was called, two of the police witnesses were not in attendance, leading to an adjournment to March 2024. He asked that the charge against him be dismissed.

In his ruling, Seepersad said, “If police officers have to pay fines from their pockets when they fail to attend trials, it is likely that non-attendance would become the exception rather than the norm.”

He also acknowledged that the magistrate’s hands were tied and her options limited as it related to the sanctions she could impose for failing to comply with her orders since magistrates, as creatures of statute, were not vested with the latitude of powers of a judge of the Supreme Court.

In Hearn’s case, Seepersad said the magistrate did take into account all the relevant considerations before adjourning the case.

“Having reviewed the defendant’s reasons, it is pellucid that she systematically and methodically evaluated all the important and relevant considerations before she elected to adjourn the matter. “Although the defendant did make a few missteps those were not fundamental and cannot lead the court to hold that she acted unreasonably.”

He also said in reviewing the history of the case, previous adjournments were not objected to by Hearn and the covid19 pandemic period when the charge was laid, was a challenging time for the court’s ability to conduct trials.

However, he said, “There can be no doubt that the criminal justice system is not operating as it should.

“The transformation of the criminal justice system and the goal of efficient and timely trials has commenced with the restructuring of the courts, the introduction of the criminal procedure rules and the abolition of preliminary enquires but success will also be dependent upon prudent case management by judicial officers and the co-operation of the prosecution.”

Seepersad was also critical of the excuse given for the absence of the officer who laid the charge.

“It is difficult for this court to understand how an internal police training course could have trumped the complainant’s attendance at a trial.

“Within the TT police service, there is need for urgent reform and transformational change so as to ensure that focused, practical and methodological administrative decisions are effected with respect to the manner in which prosecutions are engaged.”

He also suggested magistrates tighten the reigns on both the prosecution and defence in light of developments in reforming the criminal justice system.

In his ruling, Seepersad dismissed Hearn’s contention that the charge against him did not have an identifiable victim so a refusal to adjourn the matter would not have caused injustice to any party as being “absurd.”

“A car which is improperly managed or controlled becomes a dangerous and deadly weapon and countless persons could be negatively impacted.

“...There are countless families in this republic whose lives were shattered, as their loved ones were killed in accidents which were caused by persons who drove while under the influence of alcohol.

“Consequently, a no-tolerance approach to this type of violation is imperative and the defendant cannot be faulted for the position which was adopted.

“On the facts before this court, no case has been made out which suggests that the defendant acted illegally or in a manner which contravened either provisions of the operative criminal procedure rules or the ethos of same.”

Hearn was fortunate to escape a cost order being made against him as the judge said the matter raised important procedural issues.

Representing the magistrate was Tinuke Gibbons-Glenn.


"Judge: Impose fines on police officers who fail to attend court, revise criminal rules"

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