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Thu Jan 7, 2016, 04:03 PM

Police can detain without cause in Buenos Aires, according to a Municipal Supreme Court ruling.

Police officers in the city of Buenos Aires can request that any citizen present an identification card without any specific reason or suspicion, the Municipal Supreme Court ruled in a decision that was made public yesterday.

The ruling sparked heated controversy among human rights groups and progressive jurists who argued that the resolution gives a green light to security forces to carry out what would now be deemed lawful detentions with the sole purpose of checking someone’s criminal record. They also warned that it will enable security forces to harass the residents of impoverished neighborhoods.

“The ruling represents a sharp step backward,” Paula Litvachky, the Director of Justice and Security for the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Argentina's most prominent human rights organization, told the Herald. “Courts are there to oversee police forces and not to sign blank cheques. These security policies are useless. They are only aimed at controlling the population and will lead to the worst practices of police harassment,” Litchacky added. “In this context, it is a terrible message given the transfer of the Federal Police (PFA) to the Metropolitan Police.”

The PFA, a federal entity since its creation in 1880, was subsumed into the much smaller Metropolitan Police by a decree signed yesterday by President Mauricio Macri. Macri established the Metropolitan Police in 2008.

The case

The case originated in the arrest of a man, Lucas Vera, who was apprehended in Constitución railway station two years ago with a revolver in his bag. The Second District of the Buenos Aires Criminal and Misdemeanor Court considered that the operation that led to the identification of the suspect was null and void as officers cannot detain people even briefly and to demand somebody to identify him or herself without probable cause.

Municipal prosecutors brought the case before the City Supreme Court. Justices Inés Weinberg, Luis Lozano, José Casás and, Ana María Conde agreed with the prosecutors and overturned the resolution issued by the appellate tribunal; Alicia Ruiz was the sole dissent.

“Requesting the ID card of a person should be considered an implicit faculty,” Weinberg de Roca wrote in her opinion. The magistrate was appointed to the City’s Supreme Court in 2013 by then-Mayor Mauricio Macri.

Lozano, who was appointed in 2004 by former leftist Mayor Aníbal Ibarra, agreed with his colleague; but with the caveat that the request for ID cannot be part of a persecution and that superiors should make sure that officers follow the laws. "Whatever decision is made," Lozano stressed, "it cannot contradict constitutional rights." Article 18 of the Argentine Constitution of establishes that no one can be arrested without a warrant.

"It cannot discriminate. It cannot be based on suspicious criteria such as skin color, clothes, age or gender; or be invasive in an unjustified way. This can be measured by taking into consideration the oversight capability and the level of risk. For instance, more intense controls of passengers in a plane can be justified,” Lozano wrote.

A dangerous precedent

Human rights activists said yesterday, however, that giving a green light to security forces to request that citizens show their ID cards was reminiscent of the 1991 murder of 17 year-old Walter Bulacio by PFA officers, still an iconic case of police brutality in Argentina.

Bulacio had been arrested after attempting to sneak in to a sold-out rock concert in the upscale Núñez neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Bulacio was brutally pistol-whipped by police, who used PFA guidelines at the time, issued in 1958, that allowed policemen 24 hours before informing magistrates that they had arrested someone.

A week after his arrest, Bulacio died.

The political firestorm over the Bulacio case led to the passage of Law 23.950, signed September 4, 1991, by former President Carlos Menem, which established probable cause as a minimum standard by which police can detain someone and made court warrants mandatory in all arrests.

CELS pointed out, moreover, that the City Supreme Court did not take into consideration a 2003 ruling issued by the Inter-American Court, which ordered the Argentine Government to prevent another case like Bulacio’s from taking place.

Criminal law expert Roberto Carlés, whose nomination to the Argentine Supreme Court by former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was derailed last April by the opposition, regretted that “our country still debates the constitutionality of detention without probable cause.” Workers’ Leftist Front (FIT) lawmaker Myriam Bregman also condemned the decision.

“Police power has a sad record in Argentina,” she recalled. “It has always been used as a method to persecute the youth and the disadvantaged.”

At: http://buenosairesherald.com/article/206256/police-can-detain-without-cause-in-city

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