The House of Assembly tweaked the existing Police Act on March 9, but larger reforms were shelved after public outcry over perceived threats to civil liberties. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Legislators tweaked the existing Police Act this month to facilitate the collection of intimate samples for DNA tests, but they have shelved a previously proposed bill designed to bring a comprehensive overhaul to policing in the territory.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley introduced the Police (Amendment) Act 2023 on March 9, and the HOA voted to fast-track the debate the same day.

During its second reading, Dr. Wheatley stressed the need for modern and effective crime prevention legislation that also respects individuals’ freedom.

The premier previously withdrew the much heftier Police Act, 2023 on March 2, saying he would re-introduce a brief bill in its place that would allow police to conduct DNA testing with warrants but would omit previously proposed amendments that critics have said could compromise civil rights.

On March 9, he thanked the public for feedback on controversial provisions in the previous bill, which he said he introduced on behalf of Governor John Rankin.

“It is because of you that we are able to present an even greater, safer, more modern bill,” he said. “In the newest edition of the bill, consent must be given in order to take or record an intimate sample.”

If a person refuses consent, the sample can only be taken after law enforcement justifies their reasoning in writing and obtains an order signed by a magistrate or High Court judge, he said.

Sample destruction

The sample must be destroyed if the accused is acquitted, if the prosecution does not proceed with a charge, or if proceedings are discontinued, according to the premier

“The men and women who make up the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force are aware that they must be accountable for any action executed and any decision made while on duty,” he added. “They must justify their reasoning and illustrate it is of sound judgement, that it is fair, and that it is sensible.”

This bill also includes fines for officers who unjustly use those powers.

Dr. Wheatley said the pared-down bill will at least provide essential assistance for the government to investigate and prosecute crimes, particularly unsolved murders and sexual assaults.

“The further modernisation of the Police Act will be for the next House,” he added.

Unsolved homicides

HOA members lent their support for the bill, including Opposition Leader Julian Fraser, who raised concerns about the previous iteration’s provisions that would have allowed police to take samples without warrants or consent.

He also commended the premier for pushing the legislation forward while still listening to public outcry.

Other HOA members who briefly voiced support include Deputy Premier Kye Rymer; Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn; Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull; Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro; Deputy Speaker Neville Smith; and government backbencher Carvin Malone.

Mr. Rymer noted that a dozen murders over the past five years remain unsolved, and he expressed hope the bill would assist police in investigating homicides. Following a brief closed-door committee debate, House members unanimously passed the shortened Police (Amendment) Act, 2023 with amendments.

The bill was not Gazetted before the Beacon’s deadline on March 15.

Previous delays

The March 2 withdrawal of the larger bill came despite Cabinet’s previous approval of it on Jan. 31, when Cabinet members decided to send it to the HOA. Two days later, Dr. Wheatley introduced the bill in the House after members voted to add it to the agenda for the day.

Debate was subsequently scheduled for Feb. 11, but it was postponed after the bill drew criticism from residents who suggested that certain provisions could threaten civil liberties.

The recent delays were not the first for the bill, which would have replaced the existing act originally passed in 1986 and most recently updated in 2013, the premier said last month.

“In 2015 the National Security Council considered and approved a new Police Act, and this bill was first introduced in the House of Assembly in 2018,” he said. “As security is a matter that falls under the remit of the governor, this bill would have been prepared through the collaboration of the Deputy Governor’s Office, the police [and] the attorney general with input from the director of public prosecutions. The premier brings the bill to the House of Assembly on behalf of the governor.”

The 2018 version of the bill, however, was not passed by the third HOA at the time, and it was introduced again under the current HOA shortly after the 2019 election.

The current HOA was dissolved on March 10.