The law should be no respecter of persons

Dear Editor,

On Friday, March 11, Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretary in Office of the President, Dr Nanda Gopaul, crashed his car into another vehicle parked on Carifesta Avenue, badly damaging the parked vehicle and injuring a passenger who was reportedly about to enter the parked vehicle.

Persons at the accident scene said Dr Gopaul smelt of alcohol, which should have required the police at the scene to immediately carry out a breathalyzer test on him. Instead, Dr Gopaul, who reportedly told the police he was at fault in the accident, got behind the wheel of his car with a police officer seated next to him and drove to Brickdam Police Station for a breathalyzer test to be done.

At the police station, one senior police officer reportedly ordered that Dr Gopaul be released on his own recognizance. It’s still not clear if the test was ever done, but apparently no charges were ever filed, whether for causing the accident or while driving under the influence. [Ed note: We reported on March 13 that the police said Dr Gopaul had passed the breathalyser test.]

It was also learned that Dr Gopaul made financial compensation to the injured victim and offered to buy a new vehicle for the driver whose car experienced serious damage.

Then on Tuesday, March 29, a member of the highest court in the United States, the US Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Scalia, was driving to work when he rear-ended a car along the George Washington Parkway in Washington, DC. No one was injured, but police said the impact triggered a chain reaction, which meant multiple vehicles got damaged.

Interestingly, while Justice Scalia’s vehicle was towed from the scene, US Park Police proceeded to ticket Justice Scalia for ‘following too closely.’ US traffic law states that for every ten miles per hour you drive, you must be 10 feet behind the vehicle directly ahead of you; anything less will be tailgating, which is a traffic offence.

Anyway, Justice Scalia can either pay the US$70 fine plus a special assessment fee of US$20, or contest the charge in court. Knowing what is at stake, and the example he must set, I’m sure he will do the right thing.

Why did I cite these two cases? Simply to show when it comes to the rule of law the law, law enforcement and justice, there is a stark difference between two countries that are supposed to be democracies that adhere to the rule of law.

In the Guyana case, if witnesses said Dr Gopaul smelt of alcohol, the police should have been able to also confirm this and not allow him to get behind the wheel a second time that evening. If anything, a police officer should have driven his car while Dr Gopaul rode in the back seat of a police vehicle. Second, since alcohol was a suspected factor, then all traffic police vehicles should have breathalyser test devices on board at all times to allow police officers to conduct a test at the scene of an accident or at the time a suspected drunk driver is pulled over and ordered to submit to a test or be arrested on suspicion if s/he refuses.  Third, even if Dr Gopaul agreed to personally compensate the injured victim and buy the owner a new car, that accident was similar to Justice Scalia’s, in that it was a ‘rear-ender,’ which is usually governed by a ‘no-excuse’ law.

In the US case, there are lessons worth learning, but the chief would have to be the fact that no matter a person’s public office or socio-economic standing, the law is no respecter of persons and when it is upheld it instils public confidence in the independence of law enforcement from the influences of the other branches of government. From President Richard Nixon who was forced to step down in 1974 for participating in a cover-up related to a break-in incident, to former Republican congressman from California, Randy Cunningham, who was sentenced in 2006 to more than 8 years for taking bribes amounting to $2.4 million, to former US Rep William Jefferson, the first African-American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruc-tion, who was sentenced in 2009 to 13 years in prison on charges of corruption, to Supreme Court Justice Scalia, who got ticketed for a traffic violation, all go a long way towards proving the law takes pre-eminence in the United States, the occasional exceptions  notwithstanding.

This letter does not seek to target Dr Gopaul as much as it seeks to expose Guyana’s compromised law enforcement system that allows some to think it is okay to violate laws and be able to get away with it, either because of the practice that allows compensation to usurp the place of justice or the paramountcy of government politics over the law.

While the law may allow for some cases to be settled out of court, there are certain cases where the law has to be applied to everyone, regardless of status, because if the law is selectively applied it loses its effect and lawlessness will eventually prevail. And even the worst violator will tell you, in or out of prison, s/he needs the law even for her/his own good/protection.

Editor, my focus here is not even so much on the punitive aspects of the law as much as on the need for preventive measures so that everyone – law makers, law enforcers, law interpreters and law breakers – adheres to the law.

But if after almost nineteen years in office, none of the PPP presidents saw it fit to completely reform the law enforcement system so police officers can function without fear or favour, effecting arrests and seeking indictments of top government officials who violate criminal or traffic laws, then the only solution is for the PPP to be removed from office, because it is being seen as the nurturer of Guyana’s broken justice system.

Yours faithfully,
Emile Mervin

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