The role of law in the rule of law
An article in the British paper Independent (5/3/14) caught my attention. It illustrates the way statements to the police are considered in another legal system, in contrast to the way we regard ours.
The story involves Constance Briscoe, one of 11 children of Jamaican-born parents. Despite her family background, Briscoe was able to take up law at the University of Newcastle and received her master’s degree from the University of Warwick.
She became a member of the bar in 1983. In 1996 she became a part-time judge, someone like our justices of the peace during the early days of our judicial system under the Americans when justices of the peace were legally permitted, despite sitting as judges in the lowest level of the judiciary, to engage in the private practice of law. As a consequence, she holds the distinction of being one of the first black women judges in the United Kingdom.
Someone with such credentials does not usually stray from the straight and narrow. But, somehow, Briscoe seemed to have wandered once or twice. In 2008, her mother and siblings took offense at what she wrote in her book, “Ugly,” and sued her for libel, but the suit did not prosper. A year earlier, she sought to be appointed as a Queen’s Counsel, but, despite her impressive educational background, was for some reason or another not chosen.
But her up-and-down legal career took what seems to be an irreversible nose dive last May 1, when she was handed a 16-month sentence, half to be served in prison. Her offense was what we here do not take too seriously: She had lied to the police (not to the court), who were then investigating an accusation of penalty point swapping against her friend Vicky Pryce and former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, Pryce’s husband prior to their marital split in 2010.
Penalty point swapping occurs when a driver who was caught speeding by the closed circuit traffic radar screen would convince a friend or a family member, for consideration or otherwise, to own up to the traffic violation, obviously to avoid the embarrassment of having, on record, to pay a fine; for someone like Huhne who was then part of the government, such a public scandal could be seen as unfitness to hold office.
It seems that Pryce agreed to own up to the speeding violation despite the fact that it was really her then husband, Huhne, who was at the wheel. Such penalty point swapping by the couple was kept secret for many years.
Briscoe colluded with Pryce, her friend and neighbor, to leak to the public that Pryce and her husband engaged in penalty point swapping years before their marriage hit the rocks after the Cabinet official got into an affair with an aide. The leak to the media, conspired in by Pryce and Briscoe, was clearly intended to enable Pryce to exact sweet revenge on her former husband for her hurt feelings.
Despite the collusion, Briscoe, in her sworn statement, made it appear to the police that she was a disinterested party who was coming forward to tell only the truth and was not taking the side of either Pryce or Huhne. Justice Jeremy Barker, the judge who issued the sentence against Briscoe, described her behavior as painting a “wholly misleading picture of impartiality.” In addition to lying, Briscoe appeared to have also tampered with court records to make these support her purported posture of impartiality.
Barker considered Briscoe’s lying as “one of arrogance by educated individuals who considered that respect for the law was for others.”
“I am sure,” he told Briscoe, “that you realize only too well that such conduct strikes at the heart of our much cherished system of criminal justice, which is integral and invaluable to the good order of society.”
“You,” he said, “are an individual who unsurprisingly has been something of a role model to others.”
Barker then proceeded to impose on Briscoe double the eight-month term that was several months earlier handed to Pryce and Huhne, the principals of the penalty point swapping.
Far away from the United Kingdom, we, on account of our free-wheeling politics, nepotism, and patronage system, routinely suspect most of our policemen as incompetent, unreliable, or corrupt. Hence, we tend to take a cavalier attitude toward lying in our statements to the police. Police statements are retracted freely, claiming lack of understanding or full appreciation of the import of the legal proceedings, or appealing nebulously to some sort of denial of due process. Inconsistencies in what we say in different stages of the investigation and trial we easily explain away under the cover of pretended nervousness, faulty memory, or “police brutality.”
It is time we shook off that attitude and considered what we say to the police with utmost gravity. In our statements to the police, like our testimonies before a court of law, we should value our word as our bond.
Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.