Monday 14 October, 2019

$1 million fine for taking pictures of accused persons attending court

Journalists or any other persons who take photographs of prisoners arriving at, or leaving court, or who make sketches of any criminal defendant in any court, are now to face stiff penalties under the amended Criminal Justice and Administration Act.

The amendments, which were approved in the Senate on Friday, will now see persons so convicted, paying a maximum fine of $1 million, up from $20, and the possibility of spending up to one year in prison, up from one month.

Opposition Senator, Lambert Brown, in noting the development, declared that the sharp increases in the penalties amount an attack on press freedom.

Brown, who has worked as a talk show host, took the position during the debate on the bill, which was piloted by Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Kamina Johnson Smith.

Kamina Johnson Smith

According to Johnson Smith, the amendments, which follow a review of more than 300 of the 800 pieces of legislation on the law books, are aimed at bringing the outdated penalties in line with current realities. Some 40 pieces of affected legislation fall under the Ministry of Justice, which is leading the review.

The House of Representatives has already approved the amendments under the Criminal Justice and Administration Act.

Johnson Smith said the amendments would bring them to “meaningful and effective levels.”

However, a dissenting Brown cited ongoing inconsistencies in sentencing being handed down by the courts. He pointed to recent cases in Montego Bay, St James, in which persons convicted of the possession of guns and ammunition were given sentences ranging from a fine of $400,000 to 18 months in prison.

He said under clause 33 (1) of the Criminal Justice and Administration Act, “No person shall (a) take, or attempt to take in any court, any photograph, or with a view to publication, make or attempt to make in court, any portrait or sketch of any prisoner…”

Brown argued that this is done every day in countries like the United States, “Be you Mr (Jeffrey) Epstein, or be you Lee Boyd Malvo.

Lambert Brown

“They take these pictures (of criminal defendants), they take these sketches and they put it on TV, and they put it in the newspaper, no offence.

“But in Jamaica, if somebody sits there and thinks up a sketch, and puts it in The Gleaner or puts it in The Observer, or puts it on TV, they could face now, punishment of up to one-year imprisonment; that’s what the amendment is proposing,” Brown further noted.

“Freedom of expression is being affected here. I can’t support such archaic legislation that goes to the freedom of expression; that attacks our journalism profession.

“And not only that, it goes up to a fine of $1 million,” Brown remarked.

He told his fellow senators to “contrast that with a $400,000 fine for the man (found) with the gun in Montego Bay, recently.”

And Brown urged journalists to add their voices in opposition to the legislation.

“I want to hear their voices against this bill,” he declared.

Meanwhile, Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate, Donna Scott-Mottley, in her contribution to the debate, urged the Government to pause the review.

She argued that some “nonsensical provisions” had been retained, while the revisions have led to “enormous penalties” for some minor offences.

Donna Scott-Mottley

Scott-Mottley pointed to the amendments made to section 48 of the Larceny Act, which will now see a maximum fine of $3 million for any person who steals or wilfully kills any dog or bird, beast or animal with intent to steal the carcass.

The previous fine was $40,000 or three times the value of the thing stolen or killed, whichever is greater, or a prison term not exceeding three years.

“Stealing a dog, Mr President; $3 million? Seriously,” Scott-Mottley asked rhetorically.

“Stealing a bird; $3 million?” she continued.

“You have to look and weight the offence and the proportion of the fine, and to me it is totally out of balance,” Scott-Motley argued.

The Opposition senator argued further that “It doesn’t even say that you are permanently deprived of the animal. I have to entreat those who are looking at this that there has to be balance."

Meanwhile, Johnson Smith said the previous penalty under section 51 of the law for persons who were convicted of knowingly harbouring thieves, was a mere $20. In reference to that, she argued that even with sentencing guidelines, a judge cannot levy a fine above what the law prescribes.

Another woeful example, she cited, was found in section 52 of the legislation where any person previously “convicted of an assault and battery on an officer of the court, while at court, or any JP (justice of the peace) or police officer, while in the execution of his duty, such persons shall be liable to a fine not exceeding $40 or up to one year in prison.

“These are just two of the many ridiculous penalties we have on our books,” Johnson Smith stated.

In the end, the Government members used their majority to pass the legislation, which will now go to the governor general for his assent.

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