Confusion about spot fines persists at the highest levels of government. In the National Assembly on the 9th June the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs was asked if people could be forced to pay spot fines for traffic offences even if they had no money to pay. She answered:
“Yes, it is Government policy. Policy allows that. That is why it is called a spot fine. It has to be paid at that particular place. You and the police officer are allowed to talk but if you fail to agree, you are then told to sit down and you are given time to think. You can borrow money from others to pay the fine because if we allow you to go without paying, everyone who commits a traffic offence will use that excuse that they do not have money. If you are allowed to go without paying the spot fine, where do you expect the police officer to make a follow up on the payment of the fine? How will he find you?”Deputy Minister of Home Affairs
When Members pointed out that motorists, particularly in rural areas, do not have much ready cash, she said:
“We have little money but police officers do not have swipe machines. This is one thing that we are going to consider and they also do not have Ecocash because I think it will be so difficult for them. We understand there is no money but because people are committing crimes, we need to fine them. When we speak about the swipe machines, we will try to discuss as a Ministry but there will be a lot of these machines because the country is so big. We are appealing to the public to drive and at the same time having cash so that they can pay spot fines if they commit offences.”Deputy Minister of Home Affairs
When it was pointed out that negotiating with the police, as she had suggested, would give rise to corruption, she said:
“There is that possibility … This is why we are saying we should have spot fines because we do not want people to negotiate. Once we start negotiating, we are going to negotiate and end up into corruption. This is why we are emphasising on spot fines. People must just pay their fines.”
It was not a very coherent or enlightening performance. It was also completely wrong. The Police do not have legal power to demand payment of “spot fines” at roadblocks.
The Law on “Spot Fines”
The power of the Police to levy so-called spot fines is founded in section 141 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, which allows “peace officers” [law enforcement agents including police officers] to issue written notices to people who are found committing petty offences, requiring them to pay a fine or appear in court. In so far as section 141 applies to the Police and to traffic offences, it provides as follows:
- If a police officer believes a motorist has committed a traffic offence and that a court will not impose a fine of more than level 3 (currently Z$5 000) for the offence, the police officer can hand the motorist a notice, commonly called a traffic ticket.
- The traffic ticket calls on the motorist to go to a specified magistrates court at a specified date and time, in order to be tried for the traffic offence concerned.
- The ticket also says that if the motorist is prepared to admit the offence, then before the date of their trial they can sign the admission of guilt on the ticket and pay the specified fine at any police station. The fine specified on the ticket must not be more than Z$5 000.
- A motorist who pays the fine at a police station does not have to appear in court. Instead, the ticket is sent to a magistrate who convicts the motorist in absentia of the offence concerned.
Section 141 does not authorise police officers to demand payment of fines on the spot, whether in cash or electronically. Motorists must be given the option of paying their fines later, if they admit their guilt, or of appearing in court to contest the matter if they do not.
Of course, the section does not prohibit police officers from inviting motorists to pay their fines on the spot – and if they do pay their fines immediately it can save trouble all round. If payment is made the police should issue a receipt. But the law does not allow police officers to compel motorists to pay. If they use coercion to induce payment they will be acting illegally and may be liable to prosecution for extortion under section 134 of the Criminal Law Code, a crime which carries a 15-year prison sentence.
All this is not new law. As long ago as 2012, in a case decided in the High Court Bulawayo, Babbage v S [HB-157-2012], Justice Cheda said that motorists should be issued with tickets and given a reasonable time in which to pay, unless they voluntarily elect to pay the fines immediately. The judge pointed out that the police could not insist on immediate payment merely because they did not have a book of tickets available; a police officer’s failure to carry the necessary stationery could not be used to infringe people’s rights.
In 2015, when opening the legal year at the Masvingo High Court, Justice Bere said that the collection of spot fines from motorists by the police and the impounding of their vehicles if they failed to pay up was illegal and should be stopped forthwith.
This was confirmed in 2017 in another High Court judgment, this time in Harare, Makunura v Minister of Home Affairs [HH-113-2017], in which Justice Muremba said it was illegal for police officers at roadblocks to force motorists to pay spot fines against their will. She awarded damages to a motorist who was detained at a roadblock for over an hour because he could not pay a fine.
In the light of the law, which is perfectly clear, and the judicial pronouncements we have cited, which are definite and unanimous, it is shocking that the Police continue to demand payment of traffic fines immediately rather than issuing motorists with traffic tickets and giving them the option of paying immediately or later.
It is also disturbing that the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, when asked to explain the conduct of the Police, was unable to provide the National Assembly with a correct statement of the law.