Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Rastaman redemption - Judge orders State to pay more than $3 million to man wrongfully arrested

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2016 | 2:00 AMBarbara Gayle

A policeman who admitted that he regularly detained homeless persons not suspected of any crime was recently given a ticking-off by Supreme Court judge Justice David Batts, and the State ordered to pay almost $3 million with interest to one of his victims.

The cop had told the court that it was his practice to detain homeless persons to see if they were drunk or insane.

But that did not sit well with Batts, who ruled that the State should compensate 65-year-old Rastafarian Cleveland Vassel, who was falsely imprisoned for three days in 2003.

In handing down his ruling, Batts said: "Ocho Rios is a resort town, and I find that at the time, there was a cell at the Ocho Rios Police Station reserved for those inmates considered to be insane."

Batts also took a backhand swipe at the cops, as he said there was very little objective scientific or documentary evidence presented by them.

"The court was once again left to determine truth on a balance of probabilities in reliance largely on the view taken of demeanour and credibility," said Batts.

It was the judge's finding that on the night of October 27, 2003, the officers at Ocho Rios Police Station in St Ann received a report to the effect that a person sporting a dreadlocked hairstyle had what appeared to be a firearm in his possession and was in the vicinity of the Ocho Rios Market.

Vassel told the court he was in the market when a police constable approached him and said, "Hey, bwoy! Come here," and he replied, "But you don't have any manners! You can look at big man and call him boy?"

BEATEN UNCONSCIOUS

He said the policeman searched him and found nothing illegal, but still took him to the police station, where he was beaten unconscious and placed in a cell with insane prisoners.

Lawyers for the police told the court that Vassel looked homeless and was lying on the floor in the market.

According to the defence, when Vassel was approached by the cop, he started shouting profanities.

But Vassel denied being homeless and said he was properly dressed. He submitted his passport in court and it showed that at the time of his detention, he had recently returned from Europe.

He said the police took his cell phone and he was not allowed to contact anyone when he was detained.

Batts accepted Vassel's argument and believed that the man, who sports a dreadlocked hairstyle, was properly attired while in the market.

"It also moves one to wonder why someone with the wherewithal to travel to Europe would be sleeping on the market floor as the defendants alleged," the judge remarked.

Batts said it was Vassel's response when he was called a "bwoy" which provoked the constable to not only search him, but to take him to the police station.

The judge also found that Vassel was beaten to go into the police vehicle and was further beaten at the police station.

"I find, as a fact, that he was rendered unconscious by the blows. He was placed in a cell reserved for persons considered to be of unsound mind. I accept that it was a sympathetic police officer who removed him from that cell on the second day of his incarceration."

CASE DISMISSED

Vassel attended court several times, and on January 9, 2004, the case was dismissed for want of prosecution.

The judge, in awarding Vassel a total of $2.6 million with interest for pain and suffering, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, loss of earnings as well as aggravated and exemplary damages, said that the defence presented was unbelievable.

According to Batts, the police had no reason to take Vassel into custody because he cooperated with the search, which revealed no offensive weapon or contraband.

The judge said Vassel had "every right to ask why and refuse to go unless a valid reason was stated".

He added that the failure by the policeman to give a reason for arresting Vassel amounted to a further breach of his constitutionally guaranteed rights.

In awarding Vassel $800,000 for aggravated damages, the judge said he was treated in a manner designed to punish him for his impertinence to question the reason for being called "bwoy".

The judge said that was the reason he was placed in a cell with persons of unsound mind, and which also had faeces on the floor.

The award of $500,000 for exemplary damages was granted because the judge found that the constable's conduct "was such that it is deserving of an award to express the court's strong disapproval".

"The wanton abuse at the market and within the lock-up has to be discouraged," Batts stressed.

barbara.gayle@gleanerjm.com