San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Court Rules Against Searches

Last week’s preliminary ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of Costa Rica’s Supreme Court (Sala IV) that police cannot stop and search citizens without “a solid indication that the person has committed a crime” has dismayed the Public Security Ministry and President Laura Chinchilla. 

At a press conference this week, both Chinchilla and Security Minister José María Tijerino said that the executive branch would abide by the ruling. However, they voiced their disagreement with the decision in strong terms. 

Security Minister Tijerino

Roablock: Security Minister José María Tijerino is dismayed by the court decision, claiming it hinders the police from enforcement the law. Ronald Reyes | Tico Times

“In all parts of the Western world they do these searches … by prohibiting us from continuing these searches, they’re tying the Security Ministry’s hands and depriving 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.

The Decision

In a 7-0 vote, the high court ordered the Public Security Ministry to create search protocols that correspond with the ruling, which currently don’t exist.

The ruling was a response to a habeas corpus writ presented Aug. 9 by Juan José Rímolo, an attorney and former deputy mayor of Escazú, against the Public Security Ministry.

According to Rímolo’s suit, 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 automobiles.

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 consented to the search, but in his writ charged that “the detention of a person by judicial authorities without an existing warrant violates (the rights of) freedom of transit and personal dignity.”

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

 Executive Opposition

 In a press conference at Casa Presidencial, Tijerino and President Chinchilla ordered national police to continue highway searches without disobeying the Sala IV’s ruling.

The Security Ministry said the National Police will rely on reports and information from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) to stop and search suspicious vehicles. This trade off, Tijerno and Chinchilla claim, will put officials in accordance with the court ruling and allow the searches to continue.

“We will look for the ‘solid indication’ that the Sala IV’s resolution demands in the complaints that the OIJ receives,” Tijerino said.

While the Constitution’s “solid indication” phrase was adapted in part to help prevent a repressive police force, Chinchilla, a former security minister herself, believes that police officers can halt vehicles without being too authoritarian.

“What a method such as stop and search fundamentally does is maximize the presence of the preventive police,” Chinchilla said. “We are working with scant resources and what we are basically doing is improving the surveillance on the highway by taking much greater advantage of police presence since we don’t have the resources to do it in any other way.”

Chinchilla and Tijerino formally requested that the Sala IV revise its decision.

In an interview with the daily La Nación, Sala IV President Ana Virginia Calzada deflected the criticism, urging everyone to wait until the court’s final decision is written

Judicial Confusion?

Tijerino called the Sala IV’s ruling “a conceptual misunderstanding” 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 enables the government 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 that stop and search methods by National Police were legal, considering that the investigations were essential to maintaining a “preventive police force.”

Chinchilla, who called the verdict “a rock in the path” to improved citizen security, said she agrees that the OIJ should be barred from such methods, but said that National Police officers must be allowed to carry out the searches.

 “It is correct that the function of the OIJ is to investigate. The OIJ is not there to detain in order to investigate, rather investigate to detain. But in the case of the preventive police, our National Police officials, stop and search is an essential tool, especially considering the scant resources that they have to work with.”

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