Police officers also must stop and rigorously prevent any violations of the law and international standards by other police officers. Police staff, on all levels, shall be personally responsible and bear responsibility for their actions or failures or the orders issued to their subordinates.
The love affair between drugs and the police has proven to be long-lasting, tumultuous, incidental and often one-sided. Since the beginning of the 20 th century, with the adoption of the first international regulations sanctioning narcotic use/possession, through the 1930s with the systematic lies and false demonizing of cannabis and its prohibition, until the second half of the last century when the three main UN Conventions on Drug Control were adopted, drug users have been under constant prosecution by law enforcement officials, regardless whether these were uniformed police officers or belonged to special units. Let us for a moment accept that prosecution of people who possess/trade/use narcotics is legitimate (even though my personal views on this issue are clear – decriminalization of all drugs for personal use). In addition, police officers are on the bottom of the hierarchy of this systematic repression, or more precisely, its brute force.
During detention for possession of a single joint, the officers’ narrative is always the same – their actions are “in accordance with the Constitution and the Law”. But is it really so?
Indisputably, members of the Ministry of Interior are authorized to act in cases when there is reasonable doubt that a crime or a violation against the public peace and order has been committed. However, it is also indisputable that these authorizations are also incorporated in a strict legal framework, frequently violated by law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, servile institutions, intentionally poor control mechanisms, the low democratic awareness among the general population and the lack of knowledge of the basic rights, in addition to a behaviour inherited from Communism when the police had absolute authority, assist citizens to significantly contribute in the continuation and/or tolerance of such treatment. Unfortunately, large part of the population still believes the police has the right to ask for an ID or conduct a body search without a specific reason, which of course is not true.
The Law on Police clearly lists the eleven instances when a citizen should be asked to provide identification documents, while the Law on Criminal Procedure defines the restrictions on conducting body searches or a person’s home, even in cases of drug- related illegal actions. According to Article 182 of the Law on Criminal Procedure, “A search of a home owned by the defendant and other persons may be conducted if it is likely to apprehend the defendant who is wanted or to find traces of the criminal objects that are important to the criminal procedure. A search of a person may be conducted if it is likely to find traces or objects in their possession that are important to the criminal procedure.” Additionally, Articles 185-193 allow a search of a person or a home only with a search warrant issued by a judge during a previous procedure, or as an exception if a criminal offence is being committed at that precise moment. Due to the abovementioned reasons, as well as the privileged position law enforcement officials enjoy within the Macedonian judiciary system, the legal protection of the Macedonian citizens exists only on paper. Bellow, I am going to elaborate on a case from my practice as a flagrant example of the abovementioned.
A citizen bearing the initials K.K. was stopped by members of the special police forces Alfas while walking across the United Nations Bridge in Skopje, asked to show identification documents and searched, during which search the officers discovered 21 ecstasy pills. The reason for conducting a search in the minutes written by the authorized person were described as SUSPICIOUS MOVEMENT. It is quite clear to everyone, even to those from professional fields unrelated to mine, that suspicious movement as a category, or even further as reasonable doubt DOES NOT EXIST!
It should be noted that my client K.K. has been a drug user for many years, mostly of opiates, the two decades abuse of which has taken its toll on his physical appearance, which I presume was the reason (ungrounded) why he was stopped and searched by the Alpha unit. However, pursuant to the normative provisions, asking for identification papers and conducting a search on K.K. was illegal, i.e. it did not conform to the legal framework since the police officers had no reasons to have reasonable suspicion that K.K. at that moment was committing a criminal offence, nor did they have a written or oral warrant to conduct the search. As was to be expected, the appointed judge failed to perceive this as a problem and, despite my request for the search to be considered as unlawful and the minutes on the seized ecstasies considered as evidence retrieved contrary to the law, allowed for the quoted evidence to be exhibited. A fortunate circumstance was that despite the multiple previous convictions, K.K. did not receive an imprisonment sentence, of which I am particularly pleased considering the situation.
The case with K.K. is one among thousands where citizens have been unlawfully searched or asked to provide identification papers, regardless whether any evidence that they have committed a criminal offence has been found or not. In the cases when drugs were found, this poses a serious problem since in an unlawful manner, with the conduct of an unlawful procedure, these citizens were exposed to a criminal or misdemeanour prosecution. In addition to the illegitimate conducting of a search and demanding identification papers, another negative circumstance for drug users is the unconstitutional guidance issued by the Public Prosecutor which places this institution in the role of a legislator and allows itself to determine what amount of drugs is considered for personal use, but this is quite a different topic which I have protested against on numerous occasions, in a written form and verbally.
And so we arrive to the question of how drug users can be protected against unlawfully conducted searches and providing ID. The answer unfortunately is – with many difficulties. Drug users, particularly opiate users, are constantly subjected to stigma and discrimination by members of MOI and are regularly treated in an undignified manner. In such circumstances, when drug users are stopped by law enforcement officials, first of all they should ask the officers to show some kind of identification, if they had not done so previously. Always use a normal or low frequency voice because it is well known that police officers in this country consider any dignified tone as a threat to their absolute authority.
Calmly ask the police officer, or inspector, to state the grounds on which one of the eleven extensive reasons listed in the Law on Police you are being stopped or asked for identification papers. If the police officers want to conduct a search, once again calmly ask whether they possess a search warrant or to specify the criminal offence for which they have found reasonable suspicion that you are committing at that moment, and stress that you are not voluntarily agreeing to a search. Finally, if your requests are intercepted with a rude treatment and insistence on an unlawful search and demands for identification papers, insist that you be allowed to contact a lawyer and explain that you are going to undertake legal measures to protect yourself.
Let us remember that the police should be at the service of the citizens and a means to protection, not repression. The individual role of each of us, knowing and practicing our rights is very important. Let us remember that “Police personnel shall be subjected to the same legislation as ordinary citizens, and exceptions may only be justified for reasons of the proper performance of police work in a democratic society,” as well as that “The police must always verify the lawfulness of their intended actions and should refrain from carrying out any order they know, or ought to know, is unlawful. Police officers should also prevent and rigorously oppose any (police- committed) violations of the law and international standards.
Police personnel, at all levels, shall be personally responsible and accountable for their actions or omissions or for orders to subordinates, as regulated with the European Code of Police Ethics and the Declaration on the Police of the Council of Europe and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.
Author: Janaki Mitrovski
Janaki Mitrovski has been practicing law since 2012. He finished his master studies with a thesis on “Legalization towards Eradication of Drug Trade” from the Iustinianus Primus Faculty of Law at the St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. He is a fervent supporter of legalization/decriminalization of all psychoactive substances for personal use. He writes articles and texts for the legal magazines “Pravnik” and “Pravomatika” and is the co-founder of the Cannabis and Green Policies Association BILKA Skopje.