San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Justice’s Wheels Rolling in Red-Handed Cases

A new court in Costa Rica is up and running.

Or sprinting, as it were.

Inaugurated Oct. 1, a new fast-track court, called the Tribunal de Flagrancia, tries criminals caught red-handed through an accelerated hearing system, separate from the regular courts.

The court is already racking up some impressive numbers. In the first 45 days of its existence, 37 people have been served express justice sentences in 30 cases. Of those 30, 26 resulted in convictions, three in acquittals, and one was remanded for improper filing.

In the court’s first sentencing, it took only eight days from his arrest for a man to be convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for simple robbery in the theft of a cell phone.

The quickest sentence was handed down in less than six hours after the thief was apprehended on the streets of San José. The longest case has taken 37 days.

Any crime – even murder – can be heard in the fast-track court; the only criterion is that the delinquent be caught in the act.

“Let’s say neighbors hear a bunch of hitting and screaming between a couple, they recognize the voices … and they hear two shots,” says David Hernández, the court’s coordinating judge. “One neighbor goes outside to see what happened at the house and sees the man come out into the street with a gun in his hand who says, ‘I just shot my wife.’ He could be tried in the (fast-track) court.”

Despite the improbability of such a sequence, there has already been one such disposition of a felony-level crime: Jeffry Cortés was sentenced Nov. 6 to 15 years in prison for sexual abuse, attempted rape and aggravated robbery when a neighbor heard and saw him assaulting a German tourist next door. National Police apprehended Cortés in the house’s garden. It did not help Cortés’ case, the judge noted, that he had been released from prison on Sept. 26 after serving almost five years for sexual abuse with intent to rob.

To date, street robberies have been the most common crimes prosecuted in the court, which runs from 7:30 a.m. till 11 p.m.

Milton Castro, public defender coordinator for the court, has represented people in nine cases so far, a third of which were for aggravated robbery, and another third for simple robbery.

The prosecutor makes the first assessment as to whether the case is suitable for the fast-track court, that is, if there’s enough ready proof and testimony to get a conviction.

That assessment must then be corroborated by a presiding judge. If certain evidence is in dispute, the case is remanded to the regular criminal courts for the normal and longer process.

In the expedited court, all the lengthy steps of gathering testimony and filing motions that dog normal cases are gone. Another benefit, says Hernández, is that the entire case is heard in the presence of the judges, and all statements and testimonies take place orally, with the court making an audiovisual recording of the entire process, “from the moment the accused first meets with the prosecutor to the sentence reading.”

The handling of the cases is also more agile, says Castro. Defendants have been more likely to want to work out a plea bargain, and judges have been more apt to give out alternative sentences. “The goal is not to punish them but to find solutions,” he says.

“Our job on the part of the public defender’s office is that you protect the rights of the accused,” says Castro. Even with the expedited process, defendants in these cases “aren’t losing any of their rights or defenses.” All traditional legal recourses, including the right to appeal, are protected, albeit usually within a truncated timeframe. All parties involved say the trial proceedings in the fast-track court are exactly the same as in a regular criminal court, except everything takes place more quickly. For many of these cases, the accused “would have been convicted anyway, whether now or at a later date,” Castro says.

Cases moreover don’t stagnate, making witness testimony easier to get. When cases in the regular criminal courts get delayed, says Castro, “Sometimes the witnesses don’t appear in court because they pass away or lose interest in the case, for example.”

“In terms of rights, we’re seeing a swift and fair justice, and this benefits the accused as well as the victim because they get to have their day in court,” says Hernández.

In a regular criminal court, says lawyer and criminal law expert, Paul Chaves, those cases would take “a minimum of six months,” and often up to a year, if they were ever tried. But more often than not, he says, people thought it useless to report crimes they believed they would never be prosecuted, and the criminals would ultimately be able to flout the laws with impunity, getting away with most anything.

But now, says Chaves, the court’s demonstrated responsiveness has increased the incentive for people to report crimes. He also notes that this is a considerable advance in helping foreign tourists who are crime victims, because the crime could be resolved within the timeframe of their vacation, rather than months later after they have returned to their home country.

“The population is delighted about this court,” Chaves said, “because it is the only way ever we’re going to be able to fight (the) impunity (of criminals).”

Hernández says the Justice Ministry intends to expand the court from the current one, located in the Second District of Goicochea, to other provinces in the near future.

One group of people is not pleased with the new system: the perpetrators. “The criminals are really afraid of this court now because before, there was total impunity,” says Chaves.

Luis Vega, 18, was caught Oct. 5 using a gun to rob a couple of ¢5,000 (about $9) at a bus station outside the Multiplaza Escazú in western San José. By Oct. 21, the court had reached a sentence: five years in prison, the minimum for armed robbery. When he heard the verdict, Vega, who’d sat relatively emotionless during much of the trial, teared up and looked back at his mother sitting in the courtroom before he was taken away.

In a country whose people express growing insecurity, the resounding successes and happy reports seem too good to be true. So what are the drawbacks?

“The only disadvantage is that we can’t hear all the cases during the court’s hours,” says Castro.

Tico Times photography intern Lindy Drew contributed to this report.


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