San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crime chief: Cops’ hands tied by court ruling that limits searches

Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled unanimously last week that National Police officers cannot search citizens in public spaces without “a solid indication that the person has committed a crime.”


The high court ordered the Public Security Ministry to create search protocols that correspond with the ruling, security codes that currently don’t exist.


The ruling is a response to a habeas corpus writ presented Aug. 9 by Juan José Rímolo, an attorney, against the Public Security Ministry.


According to Rímolo’s case, police officials set up a vehicle checkpoint with cones on a street in downtown San Antonio de Escazú, west of San José, in order to stop and inspect vehicles.


Officials ordered Rímolo, who was driving down the street, to pull over. Authorities told Rímolo that they were conducting a “routine search for weapons and drugs,” and “following orders issued by the Security Ministry.”


Rímolo conceded to the search, but in his writ considered that “the detention of a person by judicial authorities without an existing warrant violates freedom of transit and personal dignity.”


The Sala IV ruled that such an investigation violates article 37 of Costa Rica’s Constitution. The article states that “no one may be detained without solid proof that he or she has committed a crime and without a written mandate issued by a judge or an authority in charge of public order, except in the case of fugitives or delinquents caught in the act.”


While the Public Security Ministry said it will obey the high court ruling, Security Minister José María Tijerino said he did not agree with the decision and greeted the news with harsh words. 


“In all parts of the Western world they do these searches and, what’s more, to prohibit us from continuing these searches, they tie the Security Ministry’s hands and deprive us of our most useful tool to restore security in the country,” Tijerino said.


Although he did not give concrete numbers, Tijerino said that the public searches have led to the confiscation of drugs, weapons and counterfeit money and have helped capture fugitives.


Tijerino called the ruling “a conceptual confusion” and cited article 140 of the Constitution, which grants the security authorities the power to “maintain the order and tranquility of the nation, taking the necessary measures for the protection of public liberties,” and allows the bureau to “make the National Police available to preserve the order, defense and security of the country.”


According to Tijerino, stop and search methods “protect public liberties” by “protecting the rights of citizens.”


Tijerino noted that, on two previous occasions – one in 2002 and another in 2004 – the Sala IV ruled in favor of the public searches by National Police, considering that the investigations were essential to marinating a “preventive police force.”


On Tuesday, Tijerino requested that the Sala IV revise the decision to allow the National Police to conduct the searches when “solid proof” of a crime may not exist.


President Laura Chinchilla called the verdict “a rock in the way” of citizen security and used the opportunity to push for tax reform that would boost the Security Ministry’s budget.


“This is going to interrupt the situation we have in terms of providing citizen security, but we aren’t going to stand here with our arms crossed,” she said. “It is up to the Legislative Assembly to approve the necessary taxes that will strengthen the Public Security Ministry so they can provide the country with the safety that it deserves.”


Lawmakers are debating a tax on casino earnings that would funnel roughly $30 million annually to the Public Security Ministry.

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