In the absence of a State-of-Emergency being declared, several of T&T’s legal luminaries agree that there is no change to citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of movement.
Simply put it, citizens are free to get into their vehicles or walk down the streets for anything legal. While police cannot force anyone to return home, these legal minds are urging the population not to be complacent as COVID-19 remains a real threat to the country.
Dean in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies’, Prof Rose Marie Belle Antoine, said some citizens are taking advantage of being able to go out. However, she believes the police have also overstepped their authority.
“From a legal point, there is no prohibition and we still have freedom of movement but there is a policy of “Stay-at-Home” that we are asked to follow in our interest.
“There is no law created that you have no freedom of movement, but there has been some misunderstanding. There has also been some levels of overreached and lack of goodwill on the part of the public and their abuse of the leeway given. I also believe there is a level of overreach on the part of the police. Some police officers have a different points-of-view on what is the law.
“That kind of restriction requires a State of Emergency and the Prime Minister said he does not want to take that approach. You’ve kept that freedom alive, but you cannot have it both ways. It is a question of policy in which you are persuading people.”
Attorney-at-law Gregory Delzin questioned the separation of powers, saying that police are supposed to operate apart from the government and should not enforce government policy, but rather, the law.
“Police’s power in this instance is limited to the Regulations. Where an offence can be committed is if there is a gathering of more than five people or people going to beaches and so on. Other than that, no officer has the power to stop an individual and inquire of them whether they are complying with government policy,” Delzin said.
He said Griffith may be operating on goodwill in trying to prevent people from engaging in activities that could spread the virus. However, he said there is a line between encouragement and intimidation.
Avory Sinanan S.C sees nothing wrong with the police’s role in combating the spread of the virus. But he questions the purpose of the roadblocks.
“We need to have some clear answers because if the police cannot send people home and have no right to do that, what is the utilisation of your police service? Surely you want your manpower to be used in a productive and optimum fashion. If it cannot assist in the COVID-19 restrictions, what is it geared towards? I am told that with the initial roadblocks on Friday, essential workers were caught up and could not get to work on time. That is counterproductive,” Sinanan said.
In an interview with Power 102 FM, Martin Daly, S.C said the law was clear that people had the right of freedom. But as the government asks citizens to use a common-sense approach in determining essential trips outdoors, Daly believes this differs for everyone.
“I think most of the confusion raised is the fact that there is a visible tension between the Commissioner of Police and the Government. The Commissioner of Police made it clear that the purpose of the roadblocks was to get people off the roads in compliance with the Stay-at-Home request. Government ministers come three or five days later saying that it is related to crime. I think we have to accept that the government cannot restrict people and the best the police can do is try to persuade them,” Daly said.
Criminologist and former head of the Police Service Commission Prof Ramesh Deosaran said the issue is a public interest matter that should be taken to the court for clarification and guidance for the government, police and citizens.
“The response by the Attorney General through the Cheif Solicitor General’s office, while rightly noting that citizens are free to move about, they did not make a distinction between the nonessential restrictions placed on citizens, and workers and consumers who are required for essential services. So this presents a difficulty in making this distinction by the police on the roads.
“Quite understandably, but it also appears in this challenge that the police have not been properly trained by the leadership for these challenges, leaving them to report to a more reflective rigid law enforcement approached rather than an appropriate community policing approach. Without the State of Emergency, some of the police actions may clash with citizens constitutional rights,” Deosaran said.