It has been six months since Senator Rudolph Francis was appointed to head the ministry of justice and the Attorney General’s Chambers following the dismissal of his predecessor Dr Nicolas Frederick. To close off the year, Francis held a press briefing to review his office’s successes for 2010 as well as to outline plans for 2011.
One of the pertinent issues Francis brought to the fore dealt with the current crime situation and the number of gun crimes. The AG revealed: “In terms of our plans for the upcoming year, we intend to strengthen the existing legislation with regards to firearms and dangerous weapons. Many persons may take offense to it. Many persons may be affected by it. Many innocent persons may unfortunately be caught in it. But given where we are today, we don’t have a choice. We have to act swiftly and decisively as far as firearms and dangerous weapons are concerned.”
Currently, the homicide rate stands at 48. Given the alarming escalation of gun violence on island, the AG believes the time for talk is over. He did not delve much into detail on crime fighting plans as he did not want to pre-empt Prime Minister Stephenson King’s address in the coming days. King is expected to “lay out complete and total crime fighting strategies for St Lucia,” said Francis. Francis, however, did indicate Cabinet has been in consultation with a number of expert organizations and groups to formulate a complete strategy for addressing crime in the New Year.
For the AG’s Chambers, its role, according to Francis, will be in legislating for stronger and stiffer penalties as far as certain crimes are concerned. Said the AG: “Our intention is to make firearm offenses an offense of strict liability. This means that, it places a person legally responsible for his/her acts or omissions. You no longer have to prove the Mens Rea of any offense. If you are found with a firearm, you are guilty once that firearm is not licensed. Anybody found with an unlicensed firearm will get an automatic jail sentence of ten years and maybe a fine to go with this. This is going to be compounded if you are found with ammunition. That in itself would attract an additional jail sentence.”
Additionally, Francis revealed his office will be recommending amendments to a number of legislations because “we’ve realized the proliferation of illegal arms in St Lucia is no longer tolerable. Unfortunately, there may be some innocent persons who may be caught in the process but unfortunately we have to deal with this thing in this manner to address the situation,” said Francis.
The AG’s Chambers will be drafting legislation to allow police to have the power to stop and search school children suspected to be carrying dangerous weapons at any given location. Further, greater responsibility and accountability will be placed on licensed firearms holders. Justifying his position, Francis said: “Too many licensed firearms find their way into criminal hands. Persons must recognize that they are given a license to carry a dangerous weapon, that weapon should be on your person at all times. If ever you’re leaving the state or you have a problem keeping this weapon on your person, it can be deposited at a police station nearby for safe keeping. We are going to get tough.”
The AG revealed stiffer penalties will be implemented for licensed firearm holders who lose their firearms. Sternly the AG continued: “We have also received information that licensed firearm holders are purchasing ammunition and that ammunition is finding its way to the criminals. We’ve been reliably informed that a criminal can buy a round of ammunition for $10 to $15. Criminals cannot buy ammunition from licensed traders but from licensed gun holders they can obtain the ammunition. That practice must stop and the penalty for this is going to be stiff. Licensed gun holders will be required to account for all the ammunition they have purchased. If you cannot account for it, we are going to withdraw your license. The penalties where it involves a police officer will be even harsher than it is for the ordinary licensed holder.”
As the Francis puts it, laws can only have enforcement powers with the support of the judiciary. In that respect, Francis has held discussions with members of the judiciary to get their support in ensuring the maximum penalty is imposed on persons for firearm and dangerous weapon offenses.
“The law is there but as we all know the judiciary has its discretion in most cases. We are removing that discretion by making this a strict liability offense and also, we are seeking their cooperation in ensuring there is consistency in sentencing when in it comes to firearm and gun related offenses and also other dangerous weapons,” Francis told the press.
The AG’s Chambers is taking their dangerous weapons fight further by dealing with accomplices of that offense. Said Francis: “If you know or you are in the company of someone who is in possession of an illegal firearm, you too will be arrested. If you are in a car with someone who has an illegal firearm, the entire car will be seized and the occupants arrested. If there’s an illegal firearm at your house, every occupant of that house will be held liable unless you can prove no knowledge of it.
“For bus drivers, we expect bus drivers to report suspect passengers or not pick up suspect passengers because if an illegal firearm is found on your bus, you too will be held liable.”