What you shouldn’t do if you get arrested for breaking South Africa’s lockdown laws: legal expert

SAPS officials have arrested more than 20,000 people for failing to follow South Africa’s adjusted level 3 lockdown restrictions introduced on 28 December.

Police minister Bheki Cele, who made the announcement on Wednesday, said that most of these arrests have been around the country’s current prohibition on the sale and transport of alcohol.

He said that around 7,000 people have been arrested for failing to wear masks.

Cele said when people are arrested for not wearing a mask, they are taken to a police station where they are formally charged, and have their fingerprints taken.

They are then given a choice:

  • Pay an admission of guilt fine, which typically range between R300 and R1,500.
  • Appear in the Magistrate Court and plead to the charges

Admission of guilt fine

The South African Police Service can give a person who has been arrested on suspicion of a less serious crime an option to pay an admission of guilt fine.

Such a fine allows a person to admit guilt for a less serious offence without having to appear in court, thereby preventing an unnecessary overload of the court system.

It is also meant to resolve less serious matters quickly, where an accused person accepts responsibility for having committed a minor offence. However, an admission of guilt comes with a criminal record.

Because of this, legal experts have warned against paying an admission of guilt fine as it means that South Africans could receive a criminal record.

Defence attorney William Booth told Cape Talk that this criminal record remains in place for period of up to 10 years, after which it may be expunged. This has significant implications for job seekers, he said.

“My view is that you definitely don’t sign an admission of guilt form. Even if you have been taken to the police station and processed, the document will also have a date in which you must appear in court.

“You have a number of options – my view is that you approach a lawyer immediately. This attorney can make representations to the senior state prosecutor in the magistrates court where you have to appear.

“If you have a good case and your personal circumstances are fairly significant, then you can have your charges withdrawn.”

Booth said that these rights are often not explained properly by arresting officers and that this was an issue even before the lockdown.

However, he said it has become ‘massively prevalent’ during the pandemic as the regulations allow for the payment of admission of guilt fines.

Ongoing problem

The Department of Justice and Correctional Services has acknowledged problems with the current system and is currently working on new legislation which will stop admission of guilt fines attracting criminal records in South Africa.

In May 2020, deputy minister John Jefferies said that the issue of admission of guilt fines and criminal records had been on government’s radar outside of the current coronavirus pandemic.

“This is something we have been wanting to address and it is something that will be (included) in an upcoming Judicial Matters Bill,” he said.

“The idea will be that most admission of guilt fines will not attract a criminal record.

“Sometimes the due process is not properly followed and sometimes people are pressured to pay the fine and don’t realise they are going to get a record and will affect their rights.

“So this is something that we are going to be addressing.”

Read: 7,000 South Africans arrested for not wearing masks: Cele

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What you shouldn’t do if you get arrested for breaking South Africa’s lockdown laws: legal expert