The Office of the Attorney General has stated that recent public health regulations do not affect citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of movement and that the T&T Police Service (TTPS) can not arrest persons for failing to abide by the Government’s call for citizens to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
State attorney Michelle Benjamin, acting on behalf of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, made the statements yesterday in a response letter to a threat of a lawsuit issued by political and social activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, on Tuesday.
Benjamin said: “Although it is self-evidently in the public interest for all social interactions to be restricted at this time in the interest of achieving what has become well-known as ‘flattening the curve’ or slowing down the rate of infection of COVID-19 and which informed the COVID Regulations, it is accepted that there is no legal restriction upon members of the public from movement outside of the proscriptions provided in the COVID Regulations.”
“Indeed as you accept in your letter, the police may use moral suasion to appeal to the individual social responsibility of citizens to maintain isolation as much as possible in order to continue to flatten the curve,” she added.
Stating the TTPS members had received legal advice over the scope and application of the regulations, Benjamin claimed that they (the police) were advised to persuade persons to return to their homes and that they could only arrest citizens in cases when they are in breach of the regulation, prohibiting gatherings of five and more persons in public.
As Benjamin maintained that Maharaj did not have a valid case to pursue, she claimed that the police had not infringed his or other citizens’ rights during their enforcement of the regulations.
“A cursory public excursion will demonstrate that there is no wide-scale police restriction in T&T. There is traffic on the streets, and groceries and other permitted businesses have had to voluntarily implement crowd management strategies in order to reduce the potential spread of infection at their crowded business places,” Benjamin said.
She noted that the regulations had to be amended several times to reduce opening hours of essential businesses and to deem restaurants non-essential based on citizens exercising their rights to ignore the advice to stay at home.
“In the event that your client was improperly restrained (which we expressly do not admit) it is clear that this was not in keeping with the policy and practice of the police service and could ground no general declaration as has been identified,” Benjamin said.
In a response issued yesterday afternoon, Maharaj’s lawyer Douglas Bayley made note of Benjamin’s statements but stated that his client still intends to pursue the lawsuit.
Bayley suggested that Benjamin’s statement highlighted citizens’ right to reject the State’s advice.
“If the Attorney General now accepts that there is no stay-at-home law which the TTPS can enforce but asserts that they can use moral suasion to ask people to comply with this policy, the State must now equally accept that citizens are free to reject that suasion and insist that they proceed past the roadblock and continue with their journey,” Bayley said.
He claimed that some citizens had been complying based on their fear of being arrested, which arose from allegedly misleading statements made by the Government and the TTPS.
Bayley also noted that his client did not accept the moral suasion of police argument as suggested by Benjamin.
“On the contrary, we consider this to be an illegal and unconstitutional use of police power, as the TTPS simply does not have the authority in law to stop citizens from going about their daily activities for the purpose of persuading them to comply with a Government policy,” Bayley said.
Bayley also accused the AG’s Office of attempting to downplay the TTPS’s alleged improper enforcement of the Government’s stay-at-home advisory by claiming that extensive roadblocks, which began last week, were due to “reported increases in crime”.
In a response sent late yesterday evening, Benjamin criticised Bayley’s response and stated that her office made no admissions or concessions.
“We note as well that your client continues to rely and misrepresent the statements made by the Minister of National Security and the Commissioner of Police and to promote a false and misleading narrative that the Government and/or the TTPS are acting contrary to law. We ask that your client cease and desist from doing so,” Benjamin said.