WPC to be compensated for strip search at police academy

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A woman police constable who was strip-searched while she in training at the police academy in 2020 will receive $200,000 in compensation for breaches of her right to privacy.

She was made to take off all her clothes, stoop and cough.

The officer’s claim said even she told her seniors she was menstruating but was still subjected to the strip search in the women’s dormitory.

The incident took place in relation to a reported theft of $2,100 cash left by a male trainee in his locker, which was left unsecured.

In awarding her compensation, Justice Margaret Mohammed described the incident as “most unfortunate,” as it was conducted by senior police officers “who ought to have known the law on the appropriate conduct in the circumstances of this case.”

She said the court was mindful that the officer and the other trainees, when they graduated, were required to go out and interact with the public while exercising the powers of police officers, which included searches.

She said in her opinion the former trainees were treated in a high-handed and arbitrary manner and violating their rights sent the wrong signal to them, that it was an appropriate way to treat members of the public.

While acknowledging the right to privacy was not absolute, and that a police officer can search an individual without a warrant once they have reasonable and probable cause, in this case, the officer who searched her had no evidence to believe she had stolen the money.

At the academy, male and female trainees stay in one building in two dormitories which are separated by floors and accessible by external staircases. CCTV cameras which cover these external staircases. The dormitories are prohibited to those of the opposite sex and housed a total of 194 trainees at the time of the incident.

In response to the claim, the State conceded that the command to the ex-trainee to take off all her clothes, stoop and cough did breach her right to respect for her private life.

Even so, the judge said in order to prove there was no breach to the officer’s right to privacy, the Attorney General, who was named as the defendant in the constitutional claim, had to demonstrate that the officer who carried out the search had reasonable and probable cause to suspect the trainee had the stolen money.

Mohammed said without making any preliminary investigation, such as questioning people and reviewing video recordings, the decision was taken to search the trainees. This, she said, was arbitrary and proof of this was that the search was called off without reason.

On the issue of damages, the State accepted vindicatory damages should be paid to vindicate the officer’s right to respect for private life, as the degree of intrusiveness of the strip search was disproportionate to the aim of recovering the stolen money.

As she made the award, Mohammed said it was necessary to demonstrate the court’s total disgust at the conduct of the officers.

“It is also necessary to send a signal to other officers of the State that such conduct will not be condoned and it will deter similar breaches in the future.”

As the judge assessed the quantum of compensatory damages, she said the officer’s evidence was that she was menstruating and did not want to take off her underwear. She also said she felt embarrassed when she found out other trainees had learned of the incident and when she graduated, other officers also did as well.

The officer was represented by attorneys Lee Merry, Rebecca Rafeek and Larry Boyer. Stefan Jaikaran, Chelvi Ramissoon and Hillary Mudeen appeared for the State.