The Law Association of T&T (LATT) has warned Government and State officials over the T&T Police Service (TTPS)’s enforcement of ongoing COVID-19 public health regulations.
LATT president Douglas Mendes, SC, provided the opinion in a series of letters sent to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, National Security Minister Stuart Young and Police Commissioner Gary Griffith earlier this week, following extensive roadblock activity by police across T&T.
While Mendes noted that the letters were sent under confidential cover and were not intended to be made public, they were shared with the association’s over 3,000 members in an email issued by LATT secretary Shankar Bidaisee yesterday.
In the first letter sent on April 19, Mendes noted that a series of public health regulations passed by the Government sought to prohibit the operations of businesses deemed non-essential and to prohibit citizens from gathering in groups of five or more.
“Beyond that which is prohibited, however, persons are free to come and go as they like,” Mendes said.
He noted that they do not constitute a “stay-at-home” order, which is a blanket prohibition against leaving home except for permitted activities.
“By way of example, persons are not prohibited from leaving home to exercise, to visit elderly parents, or even to drive about, as long as in so doing they do not, for example, assemble in groups of more than five,” Mendes said.
Mendes was careful to note that the organisation’s disclaimer was not intended to discourage the TTPS from enforcing the regulations or encourage the public to leave home unless absolutely necessary.
“We do consider it our duty, however, to draw to your attention instances where, due to exuberance or a misunderstanding of the law or otherwise, police officers assume the exercise of powers which they do not have,” Mendes said.
Less than 24 hours after Mendes’ correspondence was dispatched, he wrote another letter to the parties to highlight alleged continued breaches brought to the association’s attention through its membership.
Mendes said one person reported being ordered to return home while on their way to court and another reported being questioned by police over the necessity of going to a supermarket. He claimed a lawyer was also told he was in breach of the regulations for being on the road at 8 pm and was detained for an hour before being released after asserting there was no such law.
“Regrettably, all these are instances of police officers enforcing a law which does not exist,” Mendes said.
“There is no law which says you cannot be on the road after 8 pm, no law which says you can only go to the grocery if absolutely necessary, no law which empowers the police to send someone home who is on their way to court or not on the way to work at an essential service.”
He suggested that the highlighted incidents could be considered an abuse of power and may potentially legal to a lawsuit against the State.
“Very few persons are likely to challenge any such instances of false imprisonment in court but that is no reason to ignore what is happening on the ground,” Mendes said.
Noting that while writing the letter he was hearing a mobile public announcement encouraging people to stay home, Mendes suggested the efforts may be undermined by such abuses of power.
“Resentment may lead to protest, which may lead to defiance, resulting in a spiralling cycle of encounters with police officers who themselves are under the stress of enforcing the law in these trying circumstances,” Mendes said, as he called for officers to be briefed on the proper enforcement of the regulations.
Guardian Media understands the association had not received responses to Mendes’ letters up to late yesterday.
The association’s correspondence came days before lawyers representing social and political activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj threatened legal action against the State over his alleged experiences after being stopped by police and being advised to return home.
In response, the Office of the Attorney General stated the regulations do not affect citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of movement and that the TTPS cannot arrest people for failing to abide by the Government’s call for citizens to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.