Petty offences are minor offences whose penalty ranges from a caution, low value fine, community service and a one-month imprisonment term. The penal code lists these offences to be; idle and disorderly, prostitution, being a common nuisance, rogue and vagabond, easing oneself in public and begging on the streets. They are usually handled by grade 1 and 2 Magistrates.
What happens when someone is arrested for committing a Petty offence?
When someone is suspected of committing a petty offence, they are arrested by police and detained/ locked up in a police cell. This is what is usually referred to as being in police custody. While he/she is in Police custody he/ she is called a suspect because he/ she is only suspected of having committed the offence and investigations are still ongoing to confirm the same. Such a suspect has rights according to the constitution.
What are the rights of a Suspect?
- To be informed in a language they understand of the offence they are suspected to have committed.
- Not to be subjected torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment since they are presumed innocent until proven guilty by courts of law.
- To be presumed innocent until proven guilty by Courts of Law.
- To be produced before a competent Court within 48 hours.
- To apply for Police Bond pending investigations into the case.
- To be released as soon as possible if no case has been properly framed against them.
- To speak to the lawyer of their choice.
- To be informed of the progress of their case before they are taken to Court.
What is Police Bond and who has the mandate to grant it?
This in simple terms police bond refers to permission granted to a suspect to leave police custody on condition that he/she will report back to the police station on a particular date as investigations in his/her case are still ongoing.
Note: Police bond is free of charge.
Any suspect that has been arrested or their relative, on the suspect’s behalf, has a right to apply for Police Bond and this relative should avail their telephone contact and address details to ensure that the suspect reports whenever required. Once a suspect is granted police bond and subsequently skips bond, he/ she will be re-arrested and brought back into police custody.
NOTE: Where a suspect is denied Police Bond, they have a right to re-apply for the same.
Forwarding the Suspect to court (Sanctioning of the file)
Usually, after a case has been reported to the police, a file is opened in which all the statements made by the witnesses and the police reports are placed. When this is done, the file is forwarded to the Resident State Attorney where it is sanctioned by a state attorney.
During this process, some files are found to be lacking and are sent back to the police station for further evidence while others are fully sanctioned. Once the file has been sanctioned, the accused person is taken to court.
NOTE: Where the Suspect’s file is returned back to police unsanctioned, the suspect must be released immediately.
What is the process of hearing a Petty offender’s case in the Magistrates court?
On the date of hearing the case the following happens;
- The accused person pleads to the charge. The plea can either be a plea of either guilty or not guilty.
- The accused person can also choose to remain silent when the charge is read to him/her.
- Where he/ she pleads not guilty the prosecution opens its case by calling its witnesses, normally, the complainant testifies first.
- These witnesses are then cross-examined by the accused person’s lawyer or the accused himself if he has no lawyer.
- The Magistrate then makes a ruling on whether the accused person has a case to answer.
- If he/she has no case to answer, he/ she is acquitted/ released and if he/ she has a case to answer then he/ she is put on his/ her defence.
- The accused person will then testify. This includes an oral account of what happened in relation to the case.
- The accused will call his/her witnesses to testify.
- These witnesses too will be cross-examined by the prosecution.
- Judgment will be delivered and the accused either found guilty and sent to prison or acquitted (released from prison) or found innocent.
NOTE: One other major consideration these days by courts of law, is that instead of going for a full hearing of a petty offence, they present to the accused persons the option of plea bargain. It’s faster and favours all sides. It is usually done for only those that have spent three months and above and would like to plead guilty to the offences they are charged with.
What happens where the accused person wants to accept the offence? (Plea Bargain)
Plea bargain is the process between an accused person and the prosecution in which the accused person agrees to plead guilty in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offence or recommend a particular sentence subject to approval by court.
Plea bargain at High Court level is held in sessions because the judiciary sets a particular period for it and during such a period all such files of accused persons willing to participate in this session are handled.
With other cases triable by the Magistrates courts the process is ongoing.This is largely encouraged for petty offences-it is especially popular during the lockdown period. The reason is that no hearing of criminal cases is taking place and therefore prisoners find themselves spending a longer time on remand.
Role of Justice Centres Uganda in Plea Bargain
- Justice Centres Uganda conducts Prison outreaches to identify prisoners who wish to plead guilty and benefit from the plea bargain arrangement.
- Identify petty offenders that are willing to plead guilty and get their proposed sentences based on the time they have spent on remand and the offence committed.
- Negotiate with the State Attorney and the Magistrate and agree on the sentences
- Reporting back to the prisons and informing the accused persons of the results of the meeting.
- If the accused agree with the conclusive decision on the sentences then a date is scheduled for the session.
- During the session, the accused person is required to plead guilty and are given lenient sentences such as community service, caution or a short custodial sentence.
This process helps in prison decongestion and also reduces case backlog in courts. Otherwise these accused persons will end up overstaying in prison not knowing when their cases will come up for hearing.
Sources of information
- The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995
- The Trial on indictment Act Cap
- The Criminal Procedure Code Act Cap 116
- The Magistrates Court Act Cap 16
- The Magistrates Courts (Magisterial Areas) Instrument 2017
- The Judicature (Plea bargain) Rules 2016