Opinion: Expectations (from the prosecutor’s office)

POSTED: 10/15/13 12:02 PM

By Mr. Geert Hatzmann*

More than a year ago I wrote in this newspaper an article about the incomprehensible if not scandalous way the Public Prosecutor’s Office left a client of mine who had become the victim of a cowardly crime out in the cold.

I am referring to the case whereby a woman was ruthlessly recorded on camera while she was using the bankcard of the terminally ill mother of her closest girlfriend because she felt like going on a luxury shopping spree. Because the woman had illegally used the bank card in Saba as well as in St. Maarten it took the prosecutor’s office first four months to decide whether the case had to be handled by its office in Saba or its office in St. Maarten. The victim encountered every time a very defensive attitude at the prosecutor’s office when she asked for an update on the case. When finally the decision was taken to let St. Maarten handle the case it was immediately shelved because this was not a violent crime and because therefore the case had no priority.

That article 70, paragraph 2 of the soon to go into effect new criminal code explicitly requires that the prosecutor must treat victims correctly was wasted on the prosecutor’s office: they were not exactly eager to talk to my client – the victim – even once and the chief prosecutor at the time advised me to temper my clients expectations about a speedy handling of her case in order to prevent disappointments.

Obviously I did not let myself be used for this foolish and presumptuous form of expectation-management. Instead I submitted a procedure at the Common Court of Justice and exacted that the prosecutor’s office was obliged to prosecute. Several months later the bankcard thief was indeed tried and sentenced. That she did not spend a single day in a cell – she was only summoned for an interrogation and was allowed to leave the police station after a couple of hours – and that the prosecutor’s office only demanded a completely conditional prison sentence that was in the end also imposed, and that until today my client has not received a penny of the stolen $4,200 causes that neither I nor my client is completely satisfied with the conclusion of this case.

In spite of this it would go too far to dismiss the result as a pyrrhic victory. At least the prosecutor’s office has been called to account for its dictatorial behavior. My client got some satisfaction for the fact that her former girlfriend had to give account in public for the theft she committed. Altogether I would like to see this as a moral victory.

A bit more than a year ago I wrote that I hoped that the case of the bank card theft would be an eye opener for the prosecutor’s office. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be true from three recent, totally separate cases whereby clients of mine have filed complaints and reported themselves as injured party.

I will first summarize each case before I indicate what the victim may reasonably expect from the prosecutor’s office and what the prosecutor’s office point of view is. I will end with my conclusion.

The first case concerns a young lady who wanted to file a complaint in June 2013 of the fact that a former housemate had come to her place of work to ill-treat her. On that occasion and in the presence of others she spit at my client – you can imagine how humiliating that is – and she also threatened her. The police did not want to accept the complaint because the young lady had not sustained any injuries.

Then the young lady was ill-treated in August 2013 during August Monday in Anguilla by the same former housemate and several other ‘ladies” to the point that she had to be taken to hospital for treatment. A witness said that they attempted to drown my client.

The police in Anguilla refused to accept a complaint. The police in St. Maarten refused to do this also, with the argument that this was a case for the police in Anguilla. Apparently the officers were not familiar and did not want to be familiar with article 11 of the criminal code (article 11 Sv); based on this article a resident of St. Maarten can be prosecuted for a crime committed in another country.

In the end the young lady was given the opportunity several weeks after the August Monday incident to file a complaint, but only about the incident from June 2013. In an email dated August 23 I reported the ill-treatment in Anguilla to two prosecutors.

The second case concerns a man who filed a complaint about a robbery on August 27, 2013. On his behalf I emailed on September 9 to a prosecutor that my client wished to submit a claim as injured party and that he wants to be kept abreast of the progress in the investigation. It must be noted that my client claims that he has been robbed by someone he knows and that he has also told the police who this person is. Furthermore one of the detectives charged with this case told me that the person mentioned by my client is known to the police and that he also knows where this man is most of the time.

The third case concerns a woman who filed a complaint on September 10, 2013 of ill-treatment and the destruction of her car. In her complaint she mentioned the persons who are responsible for it. One of the people she mentioned has been detained for nine days. The car was damaged to the point that it would take $1,000 to repair it and she was unable to drive it. This was tough for my client because she used the car every day to go to work and now she had to organized alternative transportation at her own expense. On September 20 I notified a prosecutor in writing that my client wanted to submit a claim as injured party and that she wishes to be kept informed about the progress of the investigation. I added a damage assessment report to the letter.

So far the outline of the different cases. Now my expectations. I find that I may expect from the prosecutor’s office that it informs the victim about the state of affairs one and a half months after the victim ended up in the hospital and whereby the victim has named names and whereby there is supporting witness and medical evidence available. Which steps have been taken in the investigation? Is there an intention to detain the perpetrators mentioned by the victim shortly? Or has nothing been done and does the prosecutor’s office have no intention at all to handle this case?

The same is true even more for the second case. I find that the prosecutor’s office could have informed to plaintiff whether it plans to make an arrest one month after it became aware of a robbery whereby the plaintiff has mentioned the name of the man that robbed him while the police know this man and also know where he usually is.

And then the third case. I find that the prosecutor’s office could inform the injured party three weeks after it has become acquainted with the claim for damages whether it intends to prosecute the detained and subsequently released suspect. It is a simple case that is perfectly suited for a tit for tat approach.

But what is the opinion of the prosecutor’s office? The prosecutor’s office finds that I should not expect anything! For the cases I have described I initially had contacts with two different prosecutors who were both of the opinion that they did not have to communicate with me about individual complaints. I was referred to the police and the chief prosecutor, and informed that it stood actually more to reason to address this with the police.

The chief prosecutor also found that I incorrectly knocked on his door. He told me that first the police has to make a final report and submit this to the prosecutor and that only after that the prosecutor could take a decision about prosecuting. This would then be communicated to the injured party – the victim.

Honestly speaking I find this behavior by the prosecutor’s office as described by the chief prosecutor rather lethargic. What it comes down to is that prosecutors are comfortably reading a newspaper behind their desks and that action is only required when an industrious cop drops a file on their desks.

That is of course not the way it works. There are cases whereby the prosecutor’s office initially does not have any involvement or that are handled completely by the police without ever reaching the office of the public prosecutor. Think for instance about the community police officer who summons people to turn down the volume of their music during their party because the neighbors have complained about noise pollution. In the cases I have referred to the involvement of the prosecutor’s office is however inevitable. These are cases where there are suspects that have not been detained yet. And the police are only allowed to detain those suspects after they have received an arrest warrant from the prosecutor.

In short, it is incorrect for the prosecutor’s office to refer to the police if a victim or an injured party wants an update about her or his case.

Not only is it incorrect, if also shows a lack of insight in what moves the man and woman on the street. My clients’ eyes glaze over when I attempt to explain the message from the chief prosecutor. The feel that the prosecutor’s office apparently does not care that they are confronted with serious financial setbacks because their car has been destroyed by vandals or that they are living every day with feelings of fear, anger and sadness due to their ill-treatment.

My clients do not expect miracles from the prosecutor’s office. They do understand that prosecutors have a lot of cases to handle and that they are not capable of solving all problems simultaneously. But my clients do want to be taken seriously and they want to have the feeling that something is done about their case within a reasonable amount of time.

What remains is a sad conclusion. The prosecutor’s office has not learned anything from the Bank Card Case of more than a year ago and the treatment of victims still leaves a lot to be desired.

  • The author is an attorney at law in St. Maarten.
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