3 March 2010
Be afraid, be very afraid
So, imagine you are driving home late at night in your BMW. You hear a screeching of tyres and see two overweight men pointing their guns at your head. You panic and – as if you are now sitting behind the wheel of one of those malfunctioning Toyota’s – your car accelerates. Bam! Bam! In two minutes you are as dead as Brett Kebble – but not from “assisted suicide”.
The police who shot and killed you will never be prosecuted – at least not if the new Draft Bill aimed at amending section 49(2) of the Criminal Procedure Act is passed by Parliament. The police officers in their unmarked car will say that your BMW (or one that looks just like yours) was used as getaway car in an armed robbery and they were trying to arrest you – and that will be the end of the matter. Your wife, husband, or children will have to learn to live without you – albeit in fear of also being shot and killed by the police at a later stage.
So much for your right to life and bodily integrity and the right (so often invoked by President Jacob Zuma) to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Those rights are obviously reserved for politicians driving in blue light convoys, with their thuggish bodyguards carrying black bags to hood enemies of the state. According to the Minister of Police, ordinary citizens do not enjoy those rights because, who knows, they might just be criminals.
The Draft Bill contains two important proposed changes which will make it far easier for the police to shoot and kill people without having to think too hard about whether this is reasonable or necessary.
First, the prosed amendments to section 49(2)(a) would allow the police to kill a suspect in order to protect themselves or the public from serious bodily harm – even when it might not have been immediately necessary to do so. In other words, as long it would have been necessary at some point before or during the arrest to kill the suspect to protect anyone from serious bodily harm, the killing would be lawful.
The police would also be able to kill a suspect not only when it is necessary to protect someone’s life or to protect someone from grievous bodily harm, but now also when it would have been necessary to protect someone from “serious bodily harm”. However, it is not clear what the difference between “grievous bodily harm” and “serious bodily harm” might be (except perhaps that the former is more difficult to spell and pronounce).
Second, the amendment to section 49(2)(b) would also allow the police to kill anyone who is reasonably suspected of having committed a crime involving the possibility of seriously harming anyone if they believe there was no other way of arresting the suspect “at that time or later”. So, if a police officer has reason to believe you have been involved in a serious assault on anyone, or you have been involved in an armed robbery and there are no other reasonable means to arrest you on the spot (as opposed to going to your house later and arresting you there), they can kill you right there, finish and klaar.
These amendments attempt to simplify the circumstances under which the police can shoot and kill suspects. They would also make it far easier for the police lawfully to kill suspects during an arrest. It tries to circumvent the problem of a lack of police training, by minimizing the requirement for split-second decision-making by police officers making the arrest. Officers will not have to decide whether killing the suspect is immediately necessary and will also not have to decide whether there is a substantial risk that the suspect would cause imminent serious harm to anyone.
As long as the suspect was reasonably suspected of having committed a crime involving the threatening of serious bodily harm and as long as it was necessary to kill the suspect in order to effect the arrest of the suspect on the spots (say, because the suspect decides not to stop when ordered to do so), the police can shoot first and ask questions later.
The amendments are not only illogical but clearly also unconstitutional. Maybe I am missing something, but it does not seem logical for the law to state that the police can kill a suspect “if there are no other reasonable means of carrying out the arrest”. If they have killed the suspect, they would not be able to arrest him or her as one cannot arrest a dead person. The proposed amendments to section 49(2)(b) must therefore be read to mean that the police need not worry about whether it would be possible to arrest certain suspect at a later date. They would be able to kill the suspect on the spot if it would not be possible to arrest him or her right there and then.
The amendments are most probably also unconstitutional. As I have explained before, in the Walters case, Kriegler J set out in admirably clear language what the Bill of Rights require from any such section, and I quote:
(a) The purpose of arrest is to bring before court for trial persons suspected of having committed offences.
(b) Arrest is not the only means of achieving this purpose, nor always the best.
(c) Arrest may never be used to punish a suspect.
(d) Where arrest is called for, force may be used only where it is necessary in order to carry out the arrest.
(e) Where force is necessary, only the least degree of force reasonably necessary to carry out the arrest may be used.
(f) In deciding what degree of force is both reasonable and necessary, all the circumstances must be taken into account, including the threat of violence the suspect poses to the arrester or others, and the nature and circumstances of the offence the suspect is suspected of having committed; the force being proportional in all these circumstances.
(g) Shooting a suspect solely in order to carry out an arrest is permitted in very limited circumstances only.
(h) Ordinarily such shooting is not permitted unless the suspect poses a threat of violence to the arrester or others or is suspected on reasonable grounds of having committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious bodily harm and there are no other reasonable means of carrying out the arrest, whether at that time or later.
(i) These limitations in no way detract from the rights of an arrester attempting to carry out an arrest to kill a suspect in self-defence or in defence of any other person.
The proposed amendments would not require the police officer to take into account “all the circumstances” before deciding whether it would be reasonable and necessary to shoot and even kill a suspect. However, this is exactly what the Constitution requires. The amendments would tilt the scales in favor of extra-judicial police killings (a bit like the Vlakplaas hit squads but this time sanctioned by law) and will not pass constitutional muster.
The drafters of the Bill obviously failed to distinguish between cases where it would be permissible to shoot and injure a suspect in order to effect an arrest and cases where it would be permissible to shoot and kill that suspect. The Constitutional Court has made it clear that the latter would only be lawful in limited circumstances and that only the least degree of force to carry out the arrest would be allowed.
By repeating the wording of point (h) above out of context, the drafters probably thought that the amendments would pass constitutional muster. But they failed to take into account the rest of Kriegler’s summary and have not realized that it does not give the police a blank cheque to shoot and kill suspects merely because they are reasonably suspected of committing a crime that threatened serious bodily injury.
The Constitution requires police officers to decide in each case what degree of force is reasonable and necessary to effect an arrest. The proposed amendments wants to do away with the necessity for officers to make this judgment call. This makes the amendments unconstitutional.
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