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Police is not your friend

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Kaine Agary

I do not know who came up with the Nigeria Police slogan, “The Police is Your Friend”, but make no mistake about your relationship with the Nigeria Police. Nowhere in the world is the police your friend. They have a very important role in keeping law and order and keeping us all safe from the baddies of the world, but police is not your friend. Police is especially not your friend in an environment that does not hold the police accountable for the actions and expression of unreasonable force. Whatever class of person you are in Nigeria, the last thing that you want is an encounter with the police because you will find out very quickly that all the black letters in the Nigerian Constitution, in statutes, and police PR campaigns mean nothing to the officers on the streets and in the police station near you.

The police have the power to arrest a person and take them into legal custody either on foot of a valid warrant or on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. Ordinarily, every citizen is guaranteed the right to personal liberty. As we know, our fundamental rights are not absolute. They may be curtailed for various reasons. A valid arrest is an accepted violation of the right to personal liberty.

A person can be arrested by the police without a warrant if: the person commits an offence in the presence of the police; the police reasonably suspects that the person has committed an indictable offence; the person obstructs a police officer while the police officer is trying to carry out their duties; the person escapes or attempts to escape from lawful custody; or the police officer reasonably believes that the person is in possession of stolen property. There are some offences for which a person cannot be arrested without a warrant.

A warrant of arrest can be issued by a magistrate, judge or justice of the peace. It is a statement authorising the arrest of a person suspected of committing a crime. The arrest warrant will contain: a concise statement of the alleged offence(s) for which a person is being arrested; the name of the person charged with the alleged offence(s); an order directing a police officer or any other person executing the arrest to apprehend the named person; the date the warrant was issued; and the signature of the issuing authority (magistrate, judge, justice of the peace etc.). A warrant of arrest may be issued and executed on any day, including a Sunday or a public holiday, but it cannot be executed in a courtroom while the court is sitting or in a legislative house while the house is in session, except with the permission of the president or speaker of the legislative house.

Unless there is a reasonable fear of violence; or an attempt to escape; or where restraint is necessary for the safety of the suspect, a person arrested is not expected to be handcuffed, or bound or be subjected to unnecessary restraint except by order of the court, a magistrate or justice of the peace. Force, blows, slaps and kicks are not envisaged by law in the arrest process of a cooperating suspect. But black letter law and practice are two very different animals.In practice, murder and armed robbery suspects are restrained. A police officer making an arrest may use such force, as is reasonably necessary, to overcome any attempt at resistance or escape by the suspect.

At the time of arrest, the suspect must be informed of the reason for the arrest. If the arrest is on the foot of a warrant, the charge will be stated in the warrant. If not, the police officer is required to inform the suspect of the reason for the arrest. There is also a Constitutional right for any person arrested or detained to be informed in writing within 24 hours, and in the language that s/he understands, of the facts and grounds for his arrest or detention.

Anyone who has watched American police or legal television shows or films will be familiar with the Miranda warning:You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at Government expense. While we do not have something quite as elegant, the Nigerian police are required to give a cautionary warning to all suspects before they answer questions or make a statement. The cautionary statement may take the following form: You are not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you say will be used against you in court. The underlying principles for the warning are: every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, therefore they must be protected by rights to counter the force and ability of law enforcement to extract a non-voluntary statement.

A person arrested by the police has the following constitutional rights:

A right to silence – to remain silent and not answer any questions until they have consulted with a lawyer or other person of their choice.

A right to legal representation–a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the State (unfortunately, our legal aid system is not only crippled by a lack of resources, but also a lack of information accessible to those who cannot afford their own legal representation)

A right to bail –a suspect is entitled to be released with or without conditions, even where further investigations are necessary or where further proceedings may be brought against him, within 24 hours (or 48 hours in some circumstances) of his arrest. The police have a duty to offer bail to the suspect and/or charge him to court within 24 hours (or 48 hours in some circumstances).

A right to be taken to court within a reasonable time and a right to be tried within a reasonable time – it is difficult to reconcile these constitutional rights with the practice of people spending years languishing in prisons, awaiting trial, some for petty crimes.

As mentioned above, the black letter of the law and what happens in practice are two different animals. Until we become more aware of these rights and begin to hold the police accountable, they will remain rights only on paper.

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