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Magistrate slams prosecution for 'misleading the court', emphasises need for police training in basic procedure

Senior police officials should place an emphasis on training their officers on the basics of criminal procedure, a magistrate has remarked, after noting a number of serious shortcomings in the prosecution of a man accused of resisting, assaulting and grievously injuring a policeman

matthew_agius
Matthew Agius
10 July 2017, 2:19pm
None of the evidence pointed to the accused having attacked or assaulted the policeman, the court said
None of the evidence pointed to the accused having attacked or assaulted the policeman, the court said
Senior police officials should place an emphasis on training their officers on the basics of criminal procedure, a magistrate has remarked, after noting a number of serious shortcomings in the prosecution of a man accused of resisting, assaulting and grievously injuring a policeman in a car chase.

Carlo Stivala had been charged with an array of offences, including dangerous driving, failing to obey police orders and damaging two vehicles – one of them a police car – and relapsing last year, in a car chase that started when he was about to be issued with a parking ticket. A police constable had been thrown off his bike and injured in the incident, the court had been told during the man's arraignment.

Stivala had been loading 15 passengers from the Sliema Hotel when a police officer, passing by on a motorcycle, had ordered him to move as the van had been illegally parked. It was alleged that after a verbal exchange, the accused drove off with the officer in pursuit, sirens blaring. The officer had eventually stopped Stivala by blocking his path with his bike, at which point the impact had taken place.

But Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, however, observed that video evidence showed otherwise. “At low speed, he [Stivala] had stopped immediately and brushed against the constable's motorcycle,” the court observed. “A few seconds later, when the constable had alighted from his motorcycle and was trying to place it on its stand, he had lost his balance, causing the motorcycle to fall on top of him.” It was clear from the footage that the motorcycle did not keel over because of the minimal impact with the accused's car, but because of the manoeuvres the officer made after getting off the bike, the court said.

Magistrate Mifsud began by dealing with the charge of resisting arrest, observing that although the police officer had been enforcing traffic regulations at the time, it didn't appear that he was in the process of arresting him.

“The Court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offences relating to insults and threats against public officers...the legal issue here is whether by his actions, the accused committed the crime of violently resisting arrest.” The magistrate ruled that the charge of resisting arrest could not, therefore, subsist.

None of the evidence pointed to the accused having attacked or assaulted the policeman, either, the court said, but only to the crime of vilification, making threats or causing bodily harm under Section 95 of the Criminal Code. But then again, this charge had not been included in the Attorney General's note of renvoi, the magistrate noted, saying that the omission could not simply be inferred to be a mistake.

The constable had been medically certified as having suffered slight injuries in the incident, but the sections of the law referred to by the Attorney General dealt with more serious injuries.

“The evidence doesn't show that the accused was driving recklessly or dangerously…To the contrary, the exact opposite emerges from the footage exhibited in the acts. Had the accused not been driving carefully, the policeman would have been seriously injured as a consequence of his manoeuvre with which he stopped the accused's car.” The assertion that the driver had tried to squeeze him against a wall was also disproven by the footage, the court said, which said that it had seen no dangerous manoeuvre that could have endangered the officer.

Additionally, the damages caused to the police motorcycle had not been confirmed by an impartial valuation, the court noted.

Stivala had, however, failed to obey a police officer's order, the magistrate noted.

Reiterating his long-standing support of standing up for policemen in the line of duty, the magistrate said:

“The Court notes that in our society there are an increasing number of occasions where persons fail to obey legitimate police orders or worse, physically attack them...This Court does not wish to see members of the police force demoralised because they do not always find the reinforcement they hoped for from the Court, to say nothing of them being judged in the court of public opinion simply for carrying out their duties.” 

The police force should not be made to fear exercising its authority to correct an individual who is not acting in accordance with the law, the magistrate said, as he encouraged officers to intervene “in every place where a third party breaches [the law] and this with the intention of creating harmony in the country.”

But the court also warned that it wanted to “make it clear that it was not prepared to be misled and an incident be given a different dimension that creates unnecessary alarm in society.”

“This Court, as well as the Court before which the accused was originally arraigned, were given the impression that the accused had tried to ram the police.”

The man's relatives had done the right thing in attempting to obtain copies of CCTV footage of the incident to show that this assertion was untrue, the magistrate said, observing that had it only rested on the prosecution's evidence, the Court's picture of the incident would have been completely different.

He expressed concern at the manner in which the investigation and prosecution of the case had been carried out, including the involvement of the Office of the Attorney General. “Instead of using the vast powers conferred on him by law to examine what had emerged from the compilation of evidence, the Attorney General took the simple route of copying the dispositions of the law listed in the police charges.”

In acid terms, the court reminded that it was “totally inadmissible for parties to attempt to fill in the gaps of their evidence by means of statements and declarations...which have no probatory value.”

The evidence did not show that the accused had a “violent and refractory” criminal record, as the prosecution had asserted, nor that he had “dangerous character.”

Magistrate Mifsud's message to senior police officials was unequivocal: standards have been allowed to drop too far. “Here, the court is appealing to the leadership of the police force to emphasise the training of its officers, especially on the basics of the rules of procedure.”

“The prosecution must rest only on the evidence. The prosecution has an obligation not to mislead the court.”

Whilst public opinion had an important place in democracy, the court observed that it was not there to satisfy public hue and cry and would not be swayed by it.

Finding Stivala guilty of failing to pull over, failing to be in possession of a special driver tag when driving a vehicle intended to carry passengers and failing to obey traffic-related police orders it fined him €200. The other charges were dismissed.

Inspector Sergio Pisani prosecuted

matthew_agius
Court reporter Matthew Agius is a Legal Procurator and Commissioner for Oaths. Prior to re...