I thought that I’d start with the question that everyone always asks me – what are my rights when I get stopped by the police at a road block. I’ve heard some pretty harrowing stories of policemen intimidating and threatening motorists with the goal of extracting a bribe. Frightened by the prospect of spending a night in jail and all the dangers that come with it, most people cave in and pay up. Given that I’m not a big fan of corruption and would prefer if people don’t get pushed into acting in a way that encourages it, I give you the Law-shield-that-may-work-in-some-instances-to-get-you-out-of-these-situations-but-unfortunately-not-in-all-instances.
So, here are the frequently asked questions:
- Can the police search my car and other possessions?
• Your car: Police officers are empowered to stop, inspect and test your vehicle to ensure that it complies with the safety and functionality requirements of the National Road Traffic Act (NRTA) and regulations. This includes the power to at any time enter your vehicle and inspect it.
As a side note, the NRTA actually specifies that officers aren’t allowed to dismantle any parts of your car unless they happen to be a qualified mechanic and if they do, it’s compulsory for them to put it all back together again. If you are ever in the situation that a police officer actually dismantles your engine, please do write and tell us, we can put it on our ‘never saw that coming’ list of the impossible.
• Searching your other possessions: The State may seize anything which is concerned in or is on reasonable grounds believed to be concerned in the commission or suspected commission of an offence. Normally a police officer would need a search warrant to search your person or property. However, there are certain instances when they can do so without a warrant:
i. You consent to the search for and seizure of the item or,
ii. That police officer believes on reasonable grounds that a search warrant would be issued to him anyway and that the delay in obtaining such a warrant would defeat the object of the search.
A lot can be said about what constitutes belief on ‘reasonable grounds’ but for our purposes it’s enough to say that it is required. If an officer is trying to search your stuff when it is clearly unreasonable and there is obviously no connection to an offence, he is overstepping his powers.
- Do I have to take a breathalyzer test? If so, what is the actual legal limit for blood-alcohol levels?
• Yes, you do have to take a breathalyzer. The NRTA prohibits you from refusing to give a blood or breath sample. However, in the name of your protection (to avoid dodgy dealings) and just plain hygiene, make sure that the officer inserts a fresh mouthpiece into the base of the inhaler in your presence and that the mouthpiece is still covered by its protective covering. The protective covering should then be removed when you are ready to blow.
• Legal limit: The blood alcohol limit is 0,05 grams per 100 millilitres. Apparently, for an average 65kg woman, this means that your limit is about 1 glass of wine or 2 beers over 2 hours of drinking. For an average 70kg man the limit is approximately 2 glasses of wine or 2 beers. To calculate this easily for yourself go to http://www.health24.com/tools/bloodalcohol/start.asp.
- Can I be arrested for being rude?
• Not in most cases (it depends on whether you go blurting out hate speech or become severely abusive). However, the NRTA does specifically prohibit you from threatening the police officer and his family with either physical violence or injury to their property. So keep your rage in your pocket.
• On the other hand, to state the obvious, no-one likes a prick. There is no point in looking for trouble and annoying a police officer. At the risk of sounding preachy, we would suggest that you be polite and respectful and in most cases you’ll be treated in the same way in return.
- Can the police officer refuse to let me go on my way?
• They can indeed. If you appear to be incapable of driving because of your physical or mental condition, the officer can temporarily forbid you to drive.
- If I get threatened or asked for a bribe what should I do?
• Bluff tactics and crippling legal knowledge are useful here:
o Ask for the officer’s name, unit and service identification number. Ask to see his badge and verify that he has given you the right name and number.
o Start as many sentences as you can with ‘the Criminal Procedure Act/ National Road Traffic Act says...’ followed by you reeling off whatever you can remember from this blog-post.
o Make it very clear that if the officer arrests you, you will consult a lawyer and you will sue for unlawful arrest.