It’s important to know how best to respond and what your rights are if you’re asked to pull over at a police roadblock or traffic stop.
This can help ensure that you stay on the right side of the law. It may also protect you from police brutality. Some reports indicate that cases of South Africa police brutality have risen by as much as 313% since 2003 – and a recent Carte Blanche exposé highlighted motorists being harassed and even assaulted by rogue police officers in Gauteng’s East Rand.
To protect themselves, all citizens should get to know their rights when dealing with the police and traffic law enforcers in South Africa.
If you are stopped on the road
If the police signal you to stop at a roadblock or on the side of the road, always follow these guidelines:
- pull over when flagged down; do not drive away
- stay calm, cordial and respectful
- give personal details when requested
- if you are presented with a fine or infringement notice, sign it and avoid a roadside argument; don’t become rude or aggressive
- do not try to engage in bribery or you could be prosecuted
If a uniformed member of the police or a traffic official stops your vehicle and asks for your identity details, you are required to provide them.
A traffic officer is permitted to ask to see your driver’s licence, which you should always have on you when driving, and your ID book. In some cases, members of the police may also demand to see your vehicle license, or require that you present it at a police station within a week.
Your right to verify the authenticity of a roadblock
In the past, there have been cases of crimes committed by criminals dressed as police or traffic enforcement officers. Accordingly, you are allowed to request to see an officer’s identification (certificate of appointment). Failure to provide this is a violation of Section 334(2)(a) of the Criminal Procedure Act.
If an official refuses to show you identification, take a note of their vehicle details to report later, but remain alert and calm.
Also, although you’re not entitled to refuse being stopped and even searched at a roadblock, you may ask to see written authorisation for the roadblock from the National or Provincial Police Commissioner before you submit. If, for any reason, you are not convinced of the validity of a roadblock, you can request to be taken to the nearest police station.
If your vehicle is found to be unroadworthy
If a police or traffic enforcement officer deems your vehicle unroadworthy, they may take one of the following actions:
- request that you drive the car only to get to your destination or for a short distance
- remove your vehicle licence disc from the windscreen
- demand that you cease to drive the vehicle immediately
Since law enforcement officials are within their power here, it’s unwise to challenge any of these actions.
Arrest for outstanding fines
You may have heard rumours about drivers who have not paid up all their fines being forced to pay there and then at a police stop or face immediate arrest.
Note that you cannot be forced to pay on the spot. This is extortion. Also, you can be detained only if you have already been issued with a warrant of arrest and if an officer can show you a valid copy of the warrant. If an officer can’t provide this but still wants to arrest you, ask to call your lawyer immediately. If the officer does have a warrant, however, the police have the right to detain you until you can pay the outstanding amount.
If no warrant has been given, the officers may still issue you with a summons, provided the court date given is a minimum of two weeks in the future, not counting Sundays or public holidays. If you fail to appear, you are in contempt of court and will then be issued with a warrant.
Driving under the influence
There are strict procedures officers must follow in cases where they suspect drinking and driving. Take note of the following:
- if an officer asks whether you have been drinking and you have, answer honestly to avoid a lie working against you if the breathalyser suggests otherwise.
- you may not unreasonably refuse to be breathalysed. If your blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit (0.05g/dl), you will be taken to a mobile unit, clinic or hospital for blood to be drawn.
- you have the right to call your own doctor, provided they can get there in time, and to insist on the use of sterile, clean equipment (opened in front of you) for drawing blood. If you don’t believe these health standards are being met, you may refuse to have blood taken until the situation is remedied.
- blood samples are valid only if they are taken within two hours of you being stopped, so keep an eye on the time. Late test results will be thrown out of court, as will results from test kits that were beyond their expiry date.
- a police officer should stay present when your blood is being taken
- you may be detained while your case is being processed. You should be placed together with others of your own gender only.
If the worst happens
If you are arrested, the following rules apply:
- you must be told your rights immediately (for a list of your constitutional rights when taken into detention, click here)
- you must be taken directly to the nearest station
- you have the right to appear in court within two days
- you can apply for bail at the station, unless you are being held for a serious criminal offence
- you still have the right to be treated professionally and with respect for your human dignity
Unlawful arrests and police brutality
Unfortunately, unlawful arrests and police brutality are a common occurrence in South Africa, as highlighted in the recent Carte Blanche episode, “Bullies in Blue”, and the resulting Twitter hashtag, #CopRage.
The South African police have been guilty of an alarming number of cases of intimidation, verbal and physical abuse and even rape. According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the South African police were responsible for 3,916 cases of assault over the latest reported period, from April 2013 to March 2014. One report documented 66 rapes by police officers between April and September 2014; 25 of these incidents happened while the officers were on duty.
If you are ever a victim of unlawful, injurious behaviour, you may have grounds to launch a personal injury case of police brutality or unlawful arrest against the South African Police Services or the Metropolitan Police Department in your city.
To launch a personal injury case
To successfully claim damages, it’s important to begin the claim process as soon as possible after an assault or wrongful arrest occurs, because there are cut-off times to factor in. To prepare, you should aim to gather:
- the names of the offending officers
- witness(es) names and contact details
- any relevant medical reports and invoices
- photographs of any visible injuries
If you believe you or another person is being badly treated or bullied by police or traffic officers, it can help to get video or photo evidence, however, be sure to consider your safety if doing so at the scene – trying to film the actions of the police could make you more of a target.
Statutory requirements must be met before claims are initiated against any government body. Because the South African Police Services is a government agency, police assault claims have their own complexities, requiring particular expertise.