The constitutional permissibility of vehicle stops was challenged at a landmark hearing at the Court of Common Pleas in Koror on Friday afternoon, as it emerged that the Police do not have fixed written guidelines about how to properly conduct a vehicle stop in drink driving cases.
The issue of written guidelines to police officers on standard procedures for how and when to conduct a vehicle stop may seem bureaucratic and petty. But, far from being a technicality, the question of whether adequate guidelines for such stops exist lies at the very heart of a serious, deep-running argument over whether traffic stops could be deemed to be arbitrary, and hence prohibited by the fundamental rights-focused search and seizure protections of Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution. After all, if there is no written standard guideline on when to stop a car, and how long the stop should take, how can officers be expected to fully, consistently assess what constitutes reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop a vehicle in line with constitutional requirements?
The 1.30pm hearing on Friday afternoon, in the case of Republic of Palau vs. Ezra Nakamura, centred around the question of whether evidence obtained by means of a vehicle stop should be suppressed on constitutional grounds.
At the hearing, public prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office conceded that no written Police guidelines about how to conduct a traffic stop are known to exist. Public notice that traffic stops would be conducted was however given, Prosecutors noted.
Public prosecutors had originally suggested calling police officers to testify at a later date about how searches are conducted. Defence counsel however did not agree to this, implying that no extension or postponement of the hearing should be granted.
The judge suggested, that if there are no written guidelines, this could be seen as problematic, and that this was the focus of the hearing.
The judge made clear that “at the end of the day, there is no question” that there is a state interest in preventing drink driving, and that Constitutional rights only barred unreasonable vehicle stops, not the concept of conducting vehicle stops more widely. How long, and how intrusive those vehicle stops are, is to be considered in terms of determining their reasonability, the judge explained.
The judge made clear that they could not grant extensions in that matter, and that their decision would be based on the facts as presented to the court at Friday afternoon’s hearing. As the judge questioned public prosecutors directly, it became clear that in the absence of fixed guidelines, one officer may conduct vehicle stops in one way, while another may do it in a different manner.
The judge noted “This does not look good on the Republic”.
The judge is expected to make a formal decision on the case later this week. Whatever decision is made, the judge stated that it would apply strictly to the particular case before the court. If there are other similar cases, the matter could be raised again, but hopefully, the issues at hand would have been rectified by then, the judge suggested in their remarks. (Colin C. Cortbus/Reporting from the Court of Common Pleas in Koror)