A summary offence can loosely be defined as a minor violation of the law. Parliament has over the years enacted numerous rules to govern everyday activities of citizens in the interest of a peaceful and orderly society. It is therefore an offence to spit in public, to behave in a disorderly manner, to ill treat or abandon a child, to litter, to mistreat an animal, to pick your neighbour’s fruit, to withhold an employee’s wages. Most of these offences are punishable in the Magistrates’ Court by fines rather than by imprisonment.
Although the Magistrate himself is constrained upon the conviction of an accused person of many summary offences to impose non-custodial penalties (fines), Parliament has nevertheless deemed it necessary in the public interest to empower members of the Police Force to arrest a person without a warrant for summary conviction offences in certain restricted circumstances.
This creates the curious irony that a person may be imprisoned before trial for an offence in respect of which he will receive no more than a fine if convicted. During the period before his conviction, when he is presumed to be innocent, he can be incarcerated by the police, but upon his conviction, he may only be fined.
The discretion of the police should therefore be exercised very sparingly where the offence involved is summary in nature. In many jurisdictions other than Guyana, only more serious offences are arrestable.
In other jurisdictions, the power of arrest for minor offences is confined to situations where the arresting officer does not know the identity of the person arrested and cannot ascertain that person’s identity (from an identification card, for example). In Guyana, the Police Act confers on a member of the Force the power to arrest without a warrant for a summary offence any person who commits that offence in his view, or any person whom another person charges with having committed the summary offence as long as the person is willing to accompany the arresting officer to the station and enter a recognizance to prosecute the charge.
The power conferred on the member of the Force to arrest a person who commits in his view a summary offence is very specific. If the policeman did not actually see the commission of the summary offence, there is no power to arrest for a summary offence without a warrant. If he hears abusive language used among a group of people but does not see the individual who is speaking, there is no power to arrest, even if all the other circumstances indicate a specific person to be the culprit.
In addition, it would appear that the power to arrest for a summary offence committed in the policeman’s view must be exercised immediately. Unless the arrest is made contemporaneously with the offence, or in fresh pursuit, the arresting officer may not lawfully arrest a person for a summary offence without a warrant.