Twice on Tortola, my vehicle and I have been stopped by armed human beings with guns drawn. The first time I was with my 20-year-old child. It was over a year ago on the Ridge Road late at night. That incident was scary and left me shaken. Nevertheless, a grasshopper on my windshield and my child saying to me and the officers with guns drawn, “Grasshoppers are good luck” helped quickly defuse the dangerous tension. Guns were lowered; photos were taken of us, my identification and my registration; and we were allowed to continue on our way. I felt grateful that we were safe, but at the same time I felt that what had occurred was not okay.
I am still somewhat shaky since the second incident. I haven’t really slept or eaten well since Road Town police circled me and my truck with big guns drawn on a Sunday morning in late April this year in Carrot Bay. They said they had a two-week-old warrant for my passenger/partner. We both complied fully. They said my partner was taken into custody because he owed money to the court from 2017 and that I, the driver, must follow to the police station.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” I was told by the uncomfortable officer.
I knew none of this was his fault. The officers just follow orders. Someone gave the order to lock a human being up on a Sunday morning when there is no way to verify or pay. So the only option was for him to be caged until it was sorted.
Arresting and jailing a person over money owed in itself is immoral. Arresting and jailing a person over money owed that they did not even know about — and with no effort to alert them of it and on a day that nothing can be verified or paid — seems at best a real breakdown in our system and at worst intentional.
Caging a human being for any reason less than them being a danger to others is absolutely immoral. And in this Covid-19 world, jailing people who pose no risk and bringing their families in too is a dangerous health risk!
‘Wrong on many levels’
I am no Virgin Islands human rights legal expert, but I love the VI and all people and I am a belonger. The core of me knows that these police tactics are wrong on many levels. It should not be legal procedure to violate people’s human rights. Locking a human being up is not an “inconvenience.”
I had to learn if the Police Act allows for any options besides surrounding human beings with big guns drawn and jailing them for money owed on a weekend. This led me to re-reading three important documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the VI’s 2007 Constitution; and the VI Police Act 2019, which is the lengthiest of the three at 143 pages.
The answer to my question, I found, is yes. Yes, we have other options! First of all, Article 21.3 of the UDHR, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948 by a vote of 48 to 0 states, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”
The declaration adds other provisions as well.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth … without distinction of any kind.” “Everyone has the right to liberty and the security of person.” “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” “All are equal before the law.” “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” “Everyone charged … has the right to be presumed innocent.” “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, … nor to attacks on his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such attacks.”
Meanwhile, Chapter Two of the VI Constitution, “The Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the of the Individual” states, “Every person in the Virgin Islands is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual without distinction of any kind,” such as “economic status,” race, religion, age and so on. This further emphasises that the section applies to every person — no matter that person’s ability to pay.
Surrounding people in a vehicle on a Sunday morning in front of their neighbours with police cars and officers brandishing drawn firearms is excessive and risky for an unpaid debt when all one had to do was say, “Hey, you owe X,” and it could have been handled.
Both the driver and passenger are registered in government systems with addresses and phone numbers with social security; National Health Insurance; dentist; doctor; hospital; bank; phone company; landlords and so on.
Locking up a human being on a Sunday morning and keeping a human being caged over money without any opportunity to prove or pay until offices reopen is wrong and a violation of human rights.
Further violations of human rights include keeping a human being locked in a cell with a backed-up toilet on a hard wooden bench with no access to clean water to drink, wash or flush with; as well as denying essential items being brought to them including food.
Violating human rights is not an inconvenience.
We must do better as human beings for human beings. We must be reminded when re-reading and assessing the Police Act of 2019 for improvement that the Police Act and the behaviour and actions of the police may contravene the UDHR. The Police Act itself must not contravene the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.
In addition, this is an opportunity to streamline processes regarding collecting court debt to minimise the risk of violence, injury and possible death that is exacerbated when officers respond with guns drawn. It is also an opportunity to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 and other communicable diseases; minimise spending; and maximise systems of collection by including basic phone, email, snail mail and in-person communications.
I was able to go to the court first thing Monday morning and pay a very large fine, and my partner was released as soon as we produced the receipt. Hallelujah!
But how many people are in a position right now to come up with large sums of money to pay the court to release a human being? If we had not paid, it is my understanding that my partner would have been taken to prison and would have been kept there until the debt was paid. This would be a violation of human rights as well as an unnecessary financial cost —and it heightens the risk of Covid-19 transmission and liability.
My next question to research and answer is: How many human beings are being held in VI police station holding cells and at Her Majesty’s Prison or any other place in the VI because they owe money to the court?
Thank you for your time and consideration in this very important matter of improving the VI Police Act.