Dangerous driving case turns into police brutality investigation

RIU policemen who arrested Jean Paul Aquilina after pulling him over for driving erratically faces investigation into violence

An RIU policeman who arrested Jean Paul Aquilina, the 24 year old Mosta man accused of assaulting policemen after he was pulled over for dangerous driving, has struggled to explain how Aquilina suffered severe facial bruising and scratches to his body during the course of his arrest.

The man is pleading not guilty to dangerous driving, disobeying police orders and assaulting police officers Mark Tonna and David Camilleri. Charges of dangerous driving, driving without a seatbelt and using a mobile telephone whilst driving were added in today’s sitting.

Aquilina’s lawyer, Mario Demarco accused the police of brutally beating his client, as he cross-examined the prosecution this afternoon.

Inspector Nicholas Vella told Magistrate Carol Peralta that at around 3am on the 3rd May he was informed by the Mosta duty officer that the police Rapid Intervention Unit (RIU) had stopped a car driving erratically. The driver had repeatedly given false particulars to the police, he said, and policemen had been injured in the incident. 

Inspector Sandro Camilleri, president of the Police Officers’ Union observed the proceedings from the courtroom with a furrowed brow, tapping his feet nervously.

Cross-examined by defence lawyer Mario Demarco, he confirmed that the doctors at the Mosta health centre had referred Aquilina to Mater Dei General Hospital due to the nature of his injuries that morning. He conceded that the two officers had not been referred to hospital.

“This superhuman strength which knocked you over so many times...you ended up with a 1cm-long scratch on your left elbow 1cm, another 2cm scratch on your right elbow. A millimetre long scratch on your forehead. This was the consequence of this superhuman strength throwing you about?” Defence lawyer Mario De Marco

He said that later that day the victim’s girlfriend and her family had gone to the police station to make a report against Tonna , but that the report formed part of the incident. “There is no separate report, but it is a practise that if the case is the same, the original report is updated.” The magistrate was not impressed and said as much.

Inspector Vella also admitted that he had not interrogated or sent for the two policemen whom the man had accused of beating him up, having instead relied on their report. Asked why, the Inspector said that Aquilina’s version contradicted the police one in many aspects.

 “So you didn’t question people accused of beating up a person under arrest? Didn’t you have an interests as an inspector to find out the truth?” asked Demarco incredulously.

De Marco asked whether there was any reason for there being no photographs of Aquilina’s bloodstained shirt in which he was arraigned. Parte civile lawyer Abigail Chretin protested that the inspector was not investigating at the time, but the magistrate overruled saying his concern is a very valid one.

“I am under oath and I do not remember him having blood on his shirt, but I confirm that the photos were taken on the day.”

De Marco exhibited a newspaper article from Maltese newspaper it- Torċa, featuring different photos to those exhibited, photos of bloodstained, ripped clothing which he alleged belonged to the accused.

“When you issued the charges, you concluded that you had no need to accuse him of giving false particulars and the accusations were added a month later,” asked De Marco. The Inspector claimed human error.

“Do we agree that you had neither charged him with dangerous driving. Today, a month later, you choose to add them. What changed in the meantime?”

“Today I asked for a correction of the charges,” repeated the inspector.

De Marco moved on. “You asked him if he was drunk and he said no. Did you test him with a breathalyzer?” The inspector replied that he hadn’t.

Magistrate Peralta asked the inspector when he had seen the accused and showed him a photo of Aquilina’s bruised face. He asked him whether he had asked him about them. Clearly wrong-footed by this question, the inspector stammered for a time and then said he hadn’t.

“Do you not think it comes about naturally, even out of curiosity, to ask?” the court asked.

The inspector replied that Aquilina had already given an answer in his statement, which he read out.
“So that question about the injuries was not asked?” repeated De Marco. “No, it was not asked.”

De Marco proceeded to read out Aquilina’s statement, in which he describes being thrown to the pavement and kicked by the officers, his head pressed to the ground with a boot. “So you read this statement and you do not feel the need to call the policemen involved and ask them what caused these injuries? Shame!” said the lawyer.

One of the arresting officers, Constable David Camilleri from the RIU, took to the witness stand. He said that he had been on a patrol on the road to Mgarr with another policeman at the time and stopped a vehicle which had been zig-zagging erratically. “He crossed lanes and at one point almost mounted the pavement.”

The driver then pulled in at a bus stop and stopped. Camilleri confirmed that the driver was not speeding, but that there had been an initial suspicion was that he was either drunk or unable to control his car.

“The driver had no seatbelt on and had a mobile phone to his ear. We asked him why he was zigzagging and he started shouting that he was driving well.” He had no licence or insurance papers on him.

He added that shortly after the car had been stopped, another driver stopped to tell the police that Aquilna had been at a barbecue with him, was a good man and had done nothing wrong. The police took his details and asked him to move on.

“I observed that the driver was red in the face, had bloodshot eyes and agitated. He was contorting his mouth too,” said the policeman.

Camilleri repeated the phrase about the mouth contortions (beda jgħawweġ ħalqu”) several during his testimony, but did not say what this meant to him or why it was relevant.

“The details he gave my colleague did not match,” he went on. “We told him this and he argued that he had given us the right number. This process was repeated twice, after which the witness said that he had turned away to assist his colleague who was not getting through to the control room.

“All of a sudden he ran towards us shouting and blaspheming. I ordered him to get back in the car and he slapped me, knocking off my beret. We ended up on the floor and he was on top of me. He put his hands on my throat and was choking me. My colleague tried to pull him off me but could not. All of a sudden he threw my colleague off his back and in so doing, [Aquilina] hit his face on the door frame. At this point I stood up and tried to control him but we fell over again.”

Asked what the accused had been shouting, the officer remembered that he had threatened to get them fired.

“At one point I felt him trying to reach my service firearm and he threatened to come after us with a revolver,” continued the policeman. Other officers arrived at that time and subdued the Aquilina, he said. “He was very agitated and carried on shouting and threatening us, even then.”

Aquilina’s family had arrived at that point and had insulted the police, asking why they had arrested him.

The magistrate read out the statement by the accused. “He  stood on my head and asked me for my particulars but I couldn’t speak...punched...kicked.”

“Mr. Magistrate none of this happened,” said Camilleri. “He threw himself on his own car and broke the mirror and my colleague, Sergeant Camilleri, took him to the kerb and calmed him down. While we were taking his particulars, his girlfriend in the meantime was slapping us on our backs and swearing at us.”

“Mr. Magistrate none of this happened. He threw himself on his own car and broke the mirror" PC David Camilleri

Inspector Vella asked the witness how two people could not control one person of a similar stature to them. He repeated that the man was red faced and twisting his mouth.

The magistrate asked if the breathalyser test was taken. It hadn’t. “I asked for the test to be taken, but I was in shock. My finger needed X-rayed because it was so painful,” said the officer, lamely. “He had superhuman strength.“

He exhibited photographs of the scratches on his head from the slap and the finger marks on his neck from the alleged attempt at strangulation.

De Marco told the court that he was eager to cross examine the witness. He asked whether he had received any special training for RIU duties. He had not.

“You told us that he stopped by himself, was driving at reasonable speed albeit zigzagging. You say he was red-faced and demonstrated superhuman strength...explain to me why you did not perform a breathalyser test?” “We had asked the district police to do so. I was injured,” replied the officer.

He clarified that they did not have breathalyser equipment in the car. The duty sergeant, who was in charge of the breathalyser equipment came to the scene but did not perform the test.

“I was under a lot of shock, I don’t remember if I had asked him to breathalyse him,” repeated Camilleri.

“But with this massive shock, you carried on working till the end of your shift at 0700,” remarked De Marco dryly. “Did you contact the inspector at any time before 0700? “ He replied that he had not. “Did you feel the need to, having been assaulted by a superhumanly strong man?” My sergeant contacted him, he said.

But De Marco was only getting warmed up. “This superhuman strength which knocked you over so many times...you ended up with a 1cm-long scratch on your left elbow 1cm,  another 2cm scratch on your right elbow. A millimetre long scratch on your forehead. This was the consequence of this superhuman strength throwing you about?”

He made as if to grasp the throat of an invisible adversary and asserted that the scratches on his elbows had come from the ground whilst he was choking him.

At this point Inspector Sandro Camilleri passed a comment under his breath and the sitting briefly disintegrated into a chaos between De Marco, Camilleri and Critien exchanged shouted barbs. Critien accused De Marco of putting on a show for the gathered members of the press.

The magistrate informed Inspector Camilleri that this was not an industrial tribunal case and he had no right of audience as a union official. The magistrate was furious as the inspector attempted to argue with him. “You were wrong to interfere with the witness.”

Order was restored and De Marco continued. “So the man allegedly attacked suffered a millimetre-long scratch and my client, the alleged aggressor, was beaten to a pulp,” showing the court photos of the man’s injuries.

The witness said that the photos De Marco was exhibiting had not taken by the forensic unit and not been certified by the doctors at the polyclinic. In reply, De Marco calmly picked up the prosecution’s photos – taken by the police forensic unit – and asked whether he had an explanation for these.

“Are you a fan of Facebook, Mr. Camilleri?” asked De Marco. He showed a screenshot of a post from the Inspector’s Facebook profile, taken two years ago. Camilleri had shared a post which reads ‘they said fuck the police, so I said fuck your 911 call. I’ll get to your dying homeboy when I finish my coffee.’ “This is the person who we are dealing with.”   

Prompted by Critien, Inspector Vella said told the court that De Marco was intimidating the witness and that the evidence had no relevance to the incident in question, dating back two years. “It is an attempt by the defence to discredit the witness.”

However De Marco’s tour de force was not finished. He showed the witness a picture of the officer’s torso, which was featured prominently on a local newspaper. He asked him if he had provided it to the newspaper, reminding him of his oath. After a brief pause, he reluctantly said that he had.

Peralta, noting that a magisterial inquiry had not been held, ordered that the commissioner of police be summoned next week to report on whether the internal police investigation had begun and at what stage it had arrived. He did not rule out ordering a magisterial inquiry himself, if he was not satisfied with the internal investigation.

The case continues next week.