Justice Minister proposes extending 48-hour police detention for suspects in serious crimes

Government is proposing giving police power to seek judicial permission to extend arrest period for suspects of serious crimes by an additional 84 hours

A Justice Ministry proposal seeks to extend the 48-hour arrest period limit in serious cases where the crime carries a punishment of 12 years or more in prison
A Justice Ministry proposal seeks to extend the 48-hour arrest period limit in serious cases where the crime carries a punishment of 12 years or more in prison

Police could seek magisterial approval to detain persons suspected of serious crimes for an additional 84 hours under a government proposal extending the 48-hour rule.

The exceptional rule will apply to suspects of crimes punishable by more than 12 years’ imprisonment, MaltaToday has learnt.

The First Reading of the Bill, which is expected to amend various laws, including the Constitution, was delivered in parliament last Monday by Justice Minister Jonathan Attard.

The text of the Bill has not yet been published but replying to MaltaToday’s questions, Attard said the proposal aims to balance the rights of suspected persons with the need to protect society.

He explained that police will be able to ask a magistrate to extend the initial 48 hours of arrest by another 48 hours, with the magistrate obliged to make the decision within six hours. During those six hours, the person would still remain under arrest.

Police can ask for a second extension, which however can only be for an additional 24 hours, with the magistrate once again obliged to decide on the request within six hours.

The total additional hours spent under arrest above the initial 48 hours cannot accede 84 hours. At the end of the second extension the suspect has to be either released or charged in court.

Attard said the exception will allow police more time to investigate sophisticated and serious organised crime where it may not be appropriate to release a suspect on police bail in order to protect society or safeguard national security.

“As a government, we never shied away from proposing and implementing courageous reforms intended to ensure an effective justice system. Our aim is to provide for a proper balance between the protection of the public and the guarantees of the rights of suspects through the concurrent introduction of procedural safeguards before a judicial authority,” Attard said.

People who are arrested can be detained for a maximum of 48 hours after which the suspect is either charged in court or released. This time limit is set by the Constitution and intended to guarantee protection from arbitrary arrest or detention.

However, many countries have introduced extended pre-charge detention periods for exceptional circumstances such as terrorism and organised crime.

The Bill will require a two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the Constitution and a simple majority to amend the Police Act, which makes reference to the duties of the custody officer.

For all other crimes carrying a punishment that is less than 12 years in prison, the maximum detention period will remain 48 hours.

The Justice Ministry said the text of the Bill be published by the end of the week and discussed in parliament “at the earliest possible”.

In September 2020, then Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi had proposed extending the 48-hour period by an additional 48 hours in serious cases such as those involving organised crime and homicide. He had suggested the police be given the right to seek judicial authorisation for such an extension.

Azzopardi had made the case that organised crime was “hard core criminality” that had a structure, was well equipped and had resources at its disposal, which did not exist 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

“It is nice to praise our police, especially the Criminal Investigation Department, but it is not enough. Let us give them the tools they require to fight the mafia. Because organised crime is Mafia and this exists in Malta too,” he had said.