OPINION | Courtesy goes a long way to avoid abusive situations with law enforcement

Police monitor adherence to the level 4 lockdown regulations at Marianhill Toll Plaza on May 04, 2020 in Durban, South Africa.
Police monitor adherence to the level 4 lockdown regulations at Marianhill Toll Plaza on May 04, 2020 in Durban, South Africa.
Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

• A Wheels24 reader shared how she was assaulted by law enforcement officers more than a decade ago. 
• Justice Project SA's Howard Dembovsky responds to her letter. 
• Dembovsky explains why it's so important to remain cool and calm in confrontational situations.
• For more motoring stories, go to Wheels24.

Earlier this week, Wheels24 published a letter from a reader who had been assaulted by metro police officers in 2008. Thirteen years later and she still suffers the consequences of that traumatic day, including her daughter who was with her in the car.

Justice Project South Africa's Howard Dembovsky responds to her letter and explains who it's so important to keep a level head when pulled over by law enforcement officers.

Here's what he has to say: 

While I do not wish to appear unsympathetic towards what happened to the reader, there are some important lessons to be learned from her experience.

Even though it may be tempting to let another person know what one thinks of them, it is rarely advisable to do so, particularly where the other person is a law enforcement official.

This is because the test for crimen injuria is not particularly stringent. All it requires is that your utterings were unlawfully intended to offend another person's constitutional right to dignity, and you will likely be convicted. 

Notably, because Section 10 of the constitution provides that "everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected", intentionally offending another person's dignity is de facto unlawful and calling anyone stupid, particularly where it is accompanied by other adjectives, swear words and other qualifying statements are sure to offend.  

In South Africa, there is another critical consideration. If your utterings can be even remotely interpreted to have the slightest sniff racial or gender-based undertones, you also risk prosecution for engaging in hate speech. If or when that happens, you could be in for the high jump.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of maintaining a cool, level head and appearing to be respectful of law enforcement officials when engaging with them. Sure, respect is earned, but even if one does not really respect them, it is advisable to fake it. As the reader discovered, doing otherwise can have serious, undesirable, and lasting consequences.

This is more especially so where one is in the wrong to start with, as was the reader's self-confessed case. A fine for having a tyre "wearing thin" fitted to one's vehicle may only be issued if there is not a minimum tread depth of more than 1mm over the entire surface of the tyre, or if the tread is at the same or a lower level to the minimum tread depth markers incorporated in most tyres. 

Driving with any number of badly worn tyres is dangerous. It affects the handling of a vehicle and can easily cause a crash. It also contradicts any purported concern one may claim to have for one's loved ones. 

But there is never an excuse for a law enforcement official to abuse anyone – physically or otherwise. I think the book should be thrown at them by the judiciary if or when they do. 

That the reader was assaulted, and then the docket was "lost" twice is unforgivable. If she has not already done so, the matter should be escalated to the SAPS Centre for Service Excellence without delay. I know for a fact that SAPS HQ takes such complaints very seriously and acts on them promptly. I would also recommend that matter should be reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).

It is horrible that the reader has had to endure ten years of a debilitating criminal record, but that is what happens when one is convicted of a criminal offence. I hope that she has successfully applied to have it expunged. It is also terrible that her children were traumatised by what happened.

When all is said and done, the take-home lesson is that courtesy goes a long way to avoiding abusive situations from arising. If one maintains one's cool when interacting with law enforcement officials, the risk of being abused is minimised. It really is as simple as that.

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