The Police In Civil Cases – Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa

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Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa

The cost has become monumental and enormous, for the nation to bear. How do you spend so much money, time and energy, to train a special force to combat crime, to protect lives and property, only for its members to rubbish all those efforts with their preference for unwarranted interference in civil disputes? The Nigeria Police Force is gradually losing its identity, as a law enforcement agency set up to preserve law and order in the society. All over the land, policemen and women have taken over the statutory duties of judicial officers and the courts, to declare victors in land disputes, to assist landlords to forcefully evict tenants and to help spouses oppress themselves. It is a story of how not to police the nation. The law enforcement agencies and their collaborators have always been hiding under the principle that citizens have a responsibility to lay complaints where they suspect that a crime has been or is about to be committed. In that wise, a good number of people have walked away from damages that they richly deserve, for malicious prosecution. But that narrative has changed for good now, with the latest decision of the Supreme Court on this point.

On Friday, January 24, 2020, in the case of Kure v C.O.P. (2020) 9 NWLR (Pt.1729) 296, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment that has sealed the hope of the police in meddling in civil matters. The facts of the case are that the appellant was introduced to a director in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Rivers State, as a consultant in wild animals, whereupon an agreement was reached for the appellant to supply Giraffes, Zebras and other animals at the cost of N3.5m, which sum was paid into the appellant’s bank account, with a promise to deliver the animals within two weeks. The appellant did not deliver upon his promise, whereas it was discovered that he had withdrawn substantial part of the money deposited in his bank account. The complainant thereafter contacted a lawyer who applied for and obtained an order of lien on the account into which the money was paid. A letter of complaint was written to the Commissioner of Police, Kaduna State, whereupon the appellant was subsequently arrested and arraigned before a Chief Magistrate’s Court, Kaduna on a First Information Report on allegation of criminal breach of trust and cheating. The appellant pleaded not guilty and upon due trial, he was convicted. His appeals to the High Court and the Court of Appeal were dismissed, prompting his final appeal to the Supreme Court.

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In its landmark judgment, the Supreme Court held thus:

“The primary duty of the Police by section 4 of the Police Act is the prevention of crime, investigation and detection of crime and the prosecution of offenders. See Ibiyeye v. Gold (2012) All FWLR (Pt. 659) 1074. The police is not a debt recovery agency and has no business to dabble into contractual disputes between parties arising from purely civil transactions. See McLaren v. Jennings (2003) FWLR (Pt. 154) 528; (2003) 3 NWLR (Pt. 808) 470. When, as in the circumstances of this action, a purely civil matter is reported to the police, such a person cannot go scot-free as the report ought not to have been made at all since it is not within the purview of police duties.

It is a report made mala fide and he will be equally liable for the action taken by the Police irrespective of whether he actively instigated them or not, since he had no business involving the Police in a purely civil matter in the first place. Such conduct which portrays disregard of the law and is aimed at using the coercive powers of the State to punish a contracting party in purely civil matters ought to be mulcted in exemplary damages. See Okafor & Anor v. AIG Police Zone II Onikan & Ors (2019) LPELR-46505.

Mrs. Sokari Davies being an enlightened person knows that reporting such a matter to the Police, instead of going to court to seek enforcement of the said contract or damages for breach of same, wickedness and mala fide. The charges for cheating and criminal breach of trust cannot have a place against the appellant, let alone proving it to a conviction. The appellant is hereby discharged and acquitted. He in fact deserves an unreserved apology from Mrs. Sokari Davies who set unjustly and mala fide the criminal stone rolling against the appellant.”

We have been in this legal battle with the police and other law enforcement agencies for a very long time. In its Lagos Office, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, has departments for debt recovery, where the Banks have become principalities. Most civil contracts, involving financial transactions, loans and mortgages are daily being investigated by the EFCC and criminalized. The above case of Kure v. COP reinforces various decisions of the Supreme Court that the police cannot become debt collectors. It went further to hold liable a nominal complainant who reports civil matters to the police, for payment of damages for malicious prosecution. It is necessary for the courts to bring down the judicial hammer on this odious practice. The consequences of police involvement in civil matters are very grave for us, as a nation. The police has lost capacity for intelligence gathering, for thorough investigation that may lead to the detection and prevention of crime and the zeal for cracking major crimes has dwindled.

Due also to poor remuneration and lack of motivation, it is easy for policemen to jump at land matters, breach of contract, loan default, etc. Officially, in all recovery cases, the police is entitled to ten per cent of the total sum recovered. Many lawyers don’t earn as much for their cases, involving complicated trials and intellectual rigours. As happened in Kure’s case, many complainants prefer to use the law enforcement agencies to recover loans and other financial obligations, given the delay of cases in court. Moreover, the police have their own peculiar ways of forcing debtors to pay. The dangers of this are legion. First, it is a total distraction from the core duties of the police of crime detection and prevention. In almost all parts of Nigeria presently, the army has taken over the primary roles of the police due to the latter’s apparent inefficiency. We have several military formations and operations tackling insurgents, armed robbers, kidnappers and other criminals, which should ordinarily be the responsibility of the police. Second, it is not proper for police officers to dabble into adjudication of disputes, for which they are not properly trained or have the requisite qualifications. We cannot have a situation whereby police officers go into technical issues of determination of ownership of land, for instance. Third, undue exposure of police in debt recovery will lead to rise in crime and criminalities. Who would want to keep running after criminals when he could simply recover ten million naira and pocket ten per cent thereof?

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Generally on paper, the duties of the police are stated in Section 4 of the Police Act as being “… employed for the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of offenders, the preservation of law and order, the protection of life and property and the due enforcement of all laws and regulations with which they are directly charged, and shall perform such military duties within or outside Nigeria as may be required of them by, or under the authority of this or any other Act.”

It is crystal clear that the operating word for the police in Nigeria is “crime,” which when used interchangeably with “offence”, is any conduct defined as such by any law, as either a felony, a misdemeanor or a simple offence. In reality, however, a “crime” is what the policeman on duty terms it to be, even if it is a rival claim of ownership of land, a failed business contract, a landlord and tenant dispute, or simple husband and wife domestic quarrels. What this has done is to derail the police in terms of effectiveness in the discharge of its core mandate of crime prevention and control. Now the motto of the Nigeria Police is “Police is Your Friend,” by which it is expected that every citizen should trust and relate with the police on any issue within their jurisdiction, although this is not so in practice.

The police is your friend as a complainant when you are still cooperating to fund their operations, to provide necessary logistics that will lead to the apprehension of the suspect, but once the suspect has been identified, God help you if he is more loaded than you are, as the police will suddenly become your “enemy,” when your investigating police officer suddenly stops picking your calls and you have to wait for him in the station for hours on end. Section 8 (2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 is so very clear that “a suspect shall not be arrested merely on a civil wrong or breach of contract.” This is what the Supreme Court has reinforced in Kure’s case, by sounding the note of warning to all authors of frivolous petitions to brace up to be damnified in punitive damages for turning civil complaints into criminal matters. It is understandable that the police lack proper training and motivation, such that in most cases, what we have is simply working to the answer. The best mode of gathering intelligence for the police is brutality, excessive force, cruelty and torture.

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We therefore make the case for proper funding and training for the police and other law enforcement agencies, but while we are at that, let it be known that on no account should any citizen suffer criminal prosecution for civil wrongs. Should the Supreme Court have another opportunity to decide a similar case as Kure supra, I do suggest that all policemen involved in criminalizing civil grievances should also be held liable in damages, as a form of deterrence.

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