By Orville Williams
Following the widespread circulation of a video showing a police officer and a civilian having a less-than-favorable interaction, two attorneys are attempting to better educate the public so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future.
In the viral video, a woman can be seen resisting the detention efforts of an officer, who she claims wants to arrest her for not wearing a mask. The woman, who is allegedly pregnant, also claims that the offence is not the real reason the officer is attempting to detain her, but instead because she ignored his prior flirtation.
The woman – identified as Mellisa Johnson – has since been hit with eight charges, including failing to wear a face mask, using indecent language, resisting arrest and battery on a police officer.
Attorney, Warren Cassell, explained yesterday that the law makes it clear what rights officers have in cases like this and said individuals should be guided accordingly.
“What we have to look at, I believe, is the basis for the police officer to approach in the first place, because the Police Act does say that a police officer can arrest without a warrant, but only under certain conditions.”
“These conditions, he added, include, “if [the officer] has reasonable suspicion that you’ve committed a crime or if you’re committing a breach of the peace in their presence.”
Despite the legal backdrop of police/civilian interactions, Cassell maintains that discretion should have been exercised in this situation, especially considering the woman’s pregnant condition.
“In this particular case, let’s talk about discretion…is [her not wearing a mask] really that much of a big deal? [Maybe say] ‘put your mask back on’ and perhaps if she gives him cheek, then he can pursue.
“But, the first action of the police officer should not be to just arrest you and take you in for something as not wearing your mask. How many times have we seen people in public without their mask? Was she in a crowd? Was she alone? These are things that would sort of guide your discretion as a police officer.”
Cassell also acknowledged the responsibility of the ‘victim’ in such a case, to quickly rectify whatever breach they are accused of, in order to avoid a confrontation and the potential ramifications.
Meanwhile, Cassell’s colleague, Pete-Semaj McKnight, noted that while Antigua and Barbuda does not have the Miranda Rights established in the US and widely portrayed in film and tv, there is a similar concept known as the Judges’ Rules, which oblige police officers to caution someone suspected of an offence that they have evidence of such, before putting any questions or further questions to them, relating to the offense.
“That is normally said when I am present, if they are going to charge them, [but] I cannot say if it’s done all the time.
“That is a contention [because] if it’s not done, certain things can happen after that, so we would have to take it on a legal point whether or not those things were said.”
In the event of an attempted detention by the police, McKnight acknowledged that while it is a natural response for someone to question the reason, he warned that individuals should be careful not to resist arrest.
That, he says, could be as simple as tugging back or touching an officer, and could worsen the situation,
Going along with the police instructions – even when the arrest is perceived to be unlawful – is his advice for residents, as part of taking the proper legal route to getting justice.
McKnight echoed Cassell’s sentiments regarding the ‘prosecutorial discretion’ that officers have to decide what action to take based on the gravity of the offense, but admitted that it was unclear whether the officer in the video had issued any caution before attempting to detain the woman.
In the case of a random questioning by a police officer, Cassell advises further that a name and an address are the only pieces of information an officer is entitled to.
McKnight also explained that the expressive nature of some person could serve to instigate trouble, where their comments or actions are not necessarily a breach of the peace, but of personal offence to an officer. That, he says, may have taken place in this situation.
On the flipside, he says there are situations where the officers are deemed the aggressors due to their expressiveness, but in either case, attempts should always be made to avoid an escalation.
Johnson pleaded guilty to one only of the eight charges against her – using indecent language – and is expected to appear in the St John’s Magistrates Court sometime in September.