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Friday, 20 March 2020

Trinidad & Tobago Loitering Laws

According to this Loop News article
“Police Commissioner Gary Griffith is advising citizens that cops will ramp up the enforcement of the country's loitering laws over the coming weeks in an attempt to keep people from assembling in large numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic… in accordance with section 45(c) of the Summary Offences Act 1921, as amended”:

Can this be done?

Let’s begin with what that section of the Act says:
45. A person committing any of the offences mentioned below in this section may be deemed an idle and disorderly person, and shall be liable to a fine of two hundred dollars, or to imprisonment for one month—
 (c) any person found sleeping or loitering in or under any building, including any open outhouse, verandah, gallery, passage, or gateway, or in any vehicle or vessel, without leave of the owner, occupier or person in charge thereof, or on or under any wharf, quay, jetty, bridge, footway, or in any street or other public place, and not giving a good account of himself;

As a result, according to section 46(1)(e) of the Police Service Act 2006, as amended:
46. (1) A police officer may arrest without a warrant— 
(e) a person whom he finds lying or loitering in any public or private place or building and who does not give a satisfactory account of himself;

Now, in order to understand what specific offence is being committed, the definition of ‘loitering’ is important… but guess what, the term is not defined under any of the legislation that make it illegal.   

Sidebar: in keeping with the rule of law, criminal offences must be reasonably clear and definite so as to avoid arbitrary and discriminatory treatment from the police. In America, such laws fall under the 'void-for vagueness doctrine' which was established since 1926 in Connally v General Construction Company and basically means that a law can be held to be void if it is insufficiently defined or not defined at all.

But I digress… without a legislative definition, one can probably check the dictionary to see that ‘loitering’ means to “linger aimlessly”, which of course leaves us to decipher what ‘linger’ and ‘aimlessly’ really mean: ‘linger’ means “to remain or stay on in a place longer than is usual or expected” and ‘aimlessly’ means “without purpose”. In toto, loitering can be defined as “remaining or staying on in a place longer than is usual or expected without a purpose.”

So, now that we have a definition of the term ‘loitering’, what can legally be classified as loitering under normal circumstances (not during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown)?
  • §  People outside a bar drinking? Definitely not!
  • §  People ‘liming’ by Caura River? Definitely not!
  • §  People relaxing with their families on any of the country’s beaches? Definitely not!

At the end of the day, the law is silly and useless because whatever a person does, it will always be for a purpose... even if that purpose is killing time or hanging out, which is what this High Court judgment attempted to explain. The only way loitering can therefore be in the least enforceable, is if the term is eventually defined to say "without lawful purpose", such as with the case of prostitution. 

In reality, Gary Griffith’s threat of arrest for loitering in the proposed circumstances during this COVID-19 pandemic has no legal validity whatsoever. The Commissioner of Police – and by extension his officers – are intending to exercise executive action through some sort of illegal state of emergency power that will ultimately result in post-coronavirus lawsuits left, right and centre... 

Will we ever learn…?

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