BELIZE CITY, Tues. July 3, 2018– The Belize Police Department’s Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) has been costing taxpayers many thousands of dollars in lawsuit awards as a result of a number of incidents involving the violation of citizens’ constitutional rights by the unit, which has engaged in an overzealous enforcement of the laws, especially the Amendment to the Firearms Act, which calls for the arrest of all persons on a premises where unlicensed firearms or ammunition are found.
Today, a Supreme Court judge awarded a 20-year-old woman $10,000 after the court found that the GSU had violated her constitutional rights when she was arrested and charged, along with her mother and brother, for possession of unlicensed ammunition for some shotgun cartridges a GSU search party found at the family’s La Croix Boulevard home.
Supreme Court Justice Shona Griffith awarded Brhea Bowen $10,000 in damages for breach of her constitutional rights, and also ordered the state to pay Bowen’s court cost of $5,000.
In arriving at her decision, Justice Griffith found that the police had breached the claimant’s (Bowen’s) Section 5, (1E) rights, which spells out that citizens are not to be deprived of their personal liberty except upon reasonable suspicion of having committed or being about to commit a criminal offense.
The judge also found that breach was occasioned by a misapplication of Section 6 A of the Firearms Act.
Although Bowen was locked up for a total of 70 days, Justice Griffith said that, in making her judgment, she would not count the entire time that Bowen spent on remand, but would only count 3 days, because in Act #5 of 2008, the discretion was given to a magistrate to grant bail to persons charged under the section of the law.
The background to Bowen’s constitutional claim lies in a raid that the GSU carried out in July 2012 at her home. At the time of the raid, Bowen, a 14-year-old high school student, heading into second form, was not at home. During that raid, the police, who were executing a search warrant at the home, discovered two shotgun cartridges.
As a consequence of the discovery of the two shotgun cartridges, the entire family — Bowen, her mother and her brother, were arrested and charged.
Under the strict provisions of the law, Bowen’s mother, Romie Anthony, 47, and her brother, Amir Anthony, were remanded to the Belize Central Prison, while Bowen, being a minor, was remanded to the Youth Hostel.
Bowen’s entanglement came about when the GSU officer Corporal Adrian Lopez, who was named in the lawsuit as the second defendant, caused a warrant to be issued for Bowen and her brother Anthony.
Bowen, who was away at a summer camp in Burrell Boom when the police searched and found the two cartridges, was advised when she returned that she needed to turn herself in to police.
Bowen dutifully turned herself in to police, and thus began her ordeal with the criminal justice system which lasted for four years, before they were all acquitted in the Magistrate’s Court when the prosecution could not prove the case against them.
This has had a very traumatic effect on Bowen, as she stated in the court papers she filed.
Bowen’s claim was argued by attorney Anthony Sylvestre, who told reporters after the judgment hearing, “The court determined that the claim, the constitutional claim, had merit and it was declared that the authorities breached her constitutional right not to be deprived of her liberty unless there is reasonable suspicion …”
Sylvestre added, “The law at the time [was] the infamous gun law for which many, many persons may have been arrested under the provisions of the law. Interestingly, the court declared that in her review and analysis of the law, it does appear that the authorities would have been misapplying the law in many and most cases.
“But of course, as the court also explained, there are time limits for which claims would have had to been brought. So those persons, clearly, would have been, or may be out of time to bring any such claim.”
Sylvestre said that they were delighted that Bowen was vindicated, because at the time of her arrest she was a minor. He said that as a matter of law, in regards to the conduct of the authorities, specifically units like the GSU, her arrest was not peculiar and specific to her. He said it seems that the law was misapplied generally against the citizenry.
In other words, what was done to Bowen — the arrest of an innocent person in connection with a firearm discovery — is not unusual, but has been happening way too often — to a number of citizens — and has become a far too frequent practice of the GSU.
In her oral ruling, Justice Shona Smith indicated that officers should not indiscriminately arrest and charge everyone who resides at the premises where unlicensed firearms or ammunition are found.
“One would think that since payment of whatever award of damages are done from the public purse, that the policy makers, the government, would take heed to a court decision, and when policy decisions are taken that have such wide-sweeping impact, that they then would be very wary and be much more cautious in respect to laws that are passed and how those laws fundamentally impact people,” Sylvestre said.
Bowen also spoke to reporters, saying, “It was my lawyer that was looking out for me and explained to me that it was wrong what happened to me, and he was the one that pushed for it and made sure that I got justice.
“I am not a very vengeful person, so after the case was dismissed, I honestly wasn’t looking forward to really coming back to the court. But he said it would be the right thing to go and push the case.”
Bowen was asked if she was satisfied with the ten thousand dollars the court awarded to her.
“I am satisfied with anything because I wasn’t really asking for anything. I just wanted justice,” Bowen replied.
In April 2016, Allison Major succeeded in a similar challenge to the Firearms Amendment Act, when Justice Michelle Arana ruled that his constitutional rights were violated after he was arrested and charged for a firearm and ammunition that were found at a house. Major was also awarded monetary damages by the court for the violation of his constitutional rights by GSU police officers.