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CAN THE POLICE STOP ME FOR A “RANDOM SEARCH”?


            In the country of Belize, the narrative of Police Officer abusing their power is known all too well. Presently, the prevalent practice by Belizean Police Officers is to randomly stop and search civilians and subsequently photograph the civilians’ identification cards which is then uploaded to a WhatsApp group chat. The question most civilians make of this practice is whether these random searches and photographing of identification cards is legal? The consolidated cases of Greg Nunez v the Commissioner of Police and Attorney General; and Bryton Codd v the Commissioner of Police and Attorney General, guides us as to whether this recurring practice is in fact legal or illegal.

            These two cases occurred on the same day, however, the searches of the Claimants occurred at different times, in different locations and by different Police Officers. Yet both scenarios involved the practice whereby the Police Officers stopped the Claimants, photographed their identification cards and then uploaded them to a WhatsApp group.

RANDOM SEARCHES

            In the both cases the Police Officers relied on the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Firearms Act to conduct these random searches. In essence, by arming themselves with these two acts, Police Officers have formulated this belief that they can stop any civilian, at any time, at any place by simply “suspecting” that the Civilian is in the possession of illegal drugs and or illegal firearms.

            James J, the judge presiding over the matter, explained that although these Acts do empower the Police Officers to search civilians, there must be “reasonable grounds to suspect” to conduct theses searches. What this means is that the Police Officer must genuinely suspect that you are in possession of illegal drugs and firearms. One might say “but anything can be considered suspicious”; however, James J made reference to a series of cases and legislation from Belize and around the region to state that this “reasonable suspicion” must be assessed against the circumstances occurring at the time of the search. James J further stated that reasonable suspicion CANNOT be based simply on a person’s race, age, appearance, previous conviction, generalizations, stereotypes or a combination of these factors.

            In short, the reasonable suspicion will depend on the circumstances surrounding each case. Police Officers cannot base their reasonable suspicion by simply seeing a civilian standing, walking, or socializing with a certain group of people, the location the Civilian is in or activity being conducted (so long it is not illegal activity). James J also stated that these two Acts are specific to illegal drugs and illegal firearms; therefore reasonable suspicion must be considered to the fullest extent against the surrounding circumstances as the Laws of Belize provide for both the use of certain drugs and the allows for the possession of a licensed firearm. These two Acts are not a “quick fix” or remedy to allow Police Officers to randomly search civilians.

            James J concluded that where a Police Officers does not establish “reasonable suspicion” or attain consent from the civilian to conduct a search breaches the Constitutional Right to not be subject to the searches of his person or property or the entry by others on his premises (Section 9(1) of the Constitution of Belize.

PHOTOGRAPHING OF IDENTIFICATION CARDS

            In both cases the Police Officers, after conducting the searches, proceeded to photograph the Identification Cards of the Claimants. The Police Officers then uploaded these photographs to a WhatsApp group with other officers. The purpose of this practice, as explained by the Police Officers, is that it plays as a database where the pictures of Civilians are circulated to other officers of different precincts to screen individuals. This then allows Police Officers to see if any of the stop and searches would reveal a wanted criminal or person of interest.

            James J, gave his ruling after considering a series of cases from Belize and around the region, and concluded that such practice, although helpful, shows a complete lack of regard of a Civilian’s privacy. Countries like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have tried creating regulations and or acts that empower Police Officers to collect biographical data of civilians randomly and storing them. The Court of Jamaica found that there were not sufficient safeguards against the misuse of the data collected. James J agreed that such information is not safeguarded and can give rise for misuse of this information. James J also stated that in Belize there is no legislative authority empowering Police Officers to take photographs of civilians who are not in custody much less posting them in a WhatsApp group chat.

            This practice by Police Officers is illegal, based on the lack of legislation empowering the Policer Officers to do so. Moreover, this practice is an utter breach of the Constitutional Right to Privacy. In short, the Police Officer should not take your photograph or your Identification Card’s photograph, as this practice is not regulated.

CONCLUSION

            A Police Officer is not to “randomly” stop and search you without your consent. However, A Police Officer stopping a civilian, without consent, to search them or their property, must have formulated a “reasonable ground for suspicion”. The Police Officer’s suspicion cannot be based on generalizations or stereotypes nor can they solely rely on the Misuse of Drugs Act and Firearms Act to conduct these stop searches. However, it is always smart to comply with an officer’s commands as to not be arrested for resisting arrest or interfering with a Police Investigation. Secondly, a Police Officer who has stopped and searched you, and has not put you under their custody, CANNOT take your picture, much less post it on a WhatsApp group chat.