House starts discussing extension of 48-hour police detention for suspects in serious crimes

Justice Minister says amendment strikes balance between the protection of the public and the guarantees of the rights of suspects • Opposition agrees in principle but says proposed time frame ‘exaggerated’  

File photo
File photo

Jonathan Attard said the extention of the detention of persons suspected of serious crimes for an additional 84 hours under a government proposal extending the 48-hour rule, will provide for a proper balance between the protection of the public and the guarantees of the rights of suspects.

Parliament on Wednesday started discussing a legislative amendment which will extend the 48-hour arrest period limit in serious cases where the crime carries a punishment of 12 years or more in prison.

Should the amendment receive parliamentary approval, 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.

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.

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.

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.”

Speaking in the House on Wednesday, the justice minister said the Bill will allow investigators more time to get and preserve evidence in their investigations.

“The intentions of these amendments should not be interpreted as the introduction of a new norm, and must only be used in line with guidelines,” Attard said.

He insisted the Bill strikes a balance between the rights of the investigated individuals, and the public security.

Opposition reaction

Reacting to the proposed amendments, Opposition spokesperson for home affairs Joe Giglio said the normal citizen should not pay the price for the police force’s lack of resources.

He said the investigated individual could spend five and a half days in a “humid cell” while passing through emotional stress, and the proposed extension is “exaggerated”.

Giglio said the PN’s amendments, which reduce the limit to 72 hours, strike a fairer balance.

The MP said government is forgetting police bail, which prevents the individual being investigated by the police to not leave the country.

He said police should be given the tools and resources to carry out their investigations, and not have people arrested for five and a half days.

Giglio said that while the Opposition agrees with the Bill in principle, the fight against criminality should not come at the cost of impinging on people’s fundamental rights.

“The reality is that police take so long to investigate because they do not have the resources to analysed seized laptops, computers and mobile phones,” he said.

Justice spokesperson Karol Aquilina said the amendments have an element of “exaggeration” which should be avoided.

The MP also criticised the Labour government for voting against the Bill presented in parliament by the PN back in 2020.