A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos has held that the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, has no powers to impose fines on erring motorists.
Trial judge, Justice James Tsoho in his judgement in a suit by a lawyer, Mr Tope Alabi, held that FRSC can not turn itself into a court of law by punishing those who commit traffic offences.
The plaintiff had prayed the court to declare that only a court of competent jurisdiction can pronounce a person guilty under Section 10 (4) and 28 (2) of the FRSC (Establishment Act) 2007 and Regulation 143 of the Nigerian Roads Traffic Regulation, 2011.
The judge declared the sections null and void for being inconsistent with Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution.
He also awarded N1 million damages to the plaintiff because FRSC confiscated his vehicle and driver’s licence. “It is my conviction that the plaintiff is entitled to remedy on this account,” he said.
Justice Tsoho said while FRSC is statutorily empowered to arrest and fine traffic offenders, a closer look at the definition of the word “fine” means ‘a pecuniary criminal punishment or civil penalty payable to the public treasury.’
“In the instance case, however, the involvement of the element of arrest takes the imposition of fine by the second defendant (FRSC) to the realm of criminal punishment.
“It is noteworthy that a fine, when viewed from that perspective, is a component of sentence.
“From these definitions, it is obvious that the act of sentencing is a judicial action or exercise. Imposition of fine connotes conviction for an alleged offence. This pre-supposes a trial and conviction of the person fined, especially having regard to the definition of sentencing.
“It is, thus, very clear that the FRSC, not being a court of law, can not impose fine, especially that it has no powers to conduct trial.
“Hence, the exercise of the statutory powers given to the second defendant under the Act as pertain to imposition of fine is clearly a usurpation of judicial powers exclusively vested in the courts,” the judge held.
He further held that FRSC’s imposition of fine on the plaintiff because of his cracked windscreen is illegal.
“In the circumstances, I endorse the plaintiff’s submission that by virtue of S.1 (3) of the Constitution, the power to impose fine conferred on FRSC by the enabling Act is null and void to the extent of its inconsistency with Section 6 of the Constitution,” the judge held.
The judge said though the National Assembly is empowered to make laws, it cannot go outside the limits set by the 1999 Constitution.
“Basically, an unconstitutional legislation is null and void. That is, therefore, the effect of Section 28 (2) of the FRSC Act 2007 which has purportedly conferred power on the second defendant to impose fine, which is a judicial function. Such power is unconstitutional and unenforceable.
“The FRSC is not constitutionally vested with judicial powers and cannot and should not under any guise purport to function as a court, with competence to impose fine on alleged offenders.
“Much as FRSC seems to have passionate zeal for traffic law enforcement, it cannot be allowed to do so in breach of constitutional provisions.
“It is necessary to add that even in respect of strict liability offences, a court of law should appropriately declare the guilt of an alleged offender and then impose fine.
“FRSC’s function should not go beyond issuance of mere notices of offence,” the judge said.
Besides, Justice Tsoho said FRSC resorted to “legislative absurdity” when it imposed a fine of N3,000 on Alabi rather than the N2,000 statutorily prescribed.
“The point must be made that it is a cardinal principle of natural justice that no person be condemned without being heard. It is in observance of this that a person alleged to have committed an offence has to respond to such allegation before a court of law during trial,” he held.
According to the judge, Alabi was issued a notice of offence sheet on April 4 last year, but FRSC did not take him to court for five months before the plaintiff filed his suit on September 9 last year.
“The vital question to ask is how long would the second defendant reasonably take to commence prosecution of a traffic offence? The plaintiff was not under obligation to wait indefinitely for redress due to FRSC’s inaction or laxity,” the judge added.
The judge faulted FRSC’s practice of detaining vehicle whose drivers commit traffic offences.
He said: “I hold the view that confiscation of the vehicle was unnecessary in the first place, though the second defendant (FRSC) spiritedly sought to justify it.
“The seemingly indefinite retention of the plaintiff’s vehicle papers and driver’s licence by officers of the second defendant is totally unreasonable, insensitive and unacceptable.
“The confiscation no doubt deprived the plaintiff of the use of the vehicle for as long as it lasted and also custody of his vehicle papers and driver’s licence.”
The judge granted 11 of the plaintiff’s 14 reliefs, and said he was awarded N1 million rather than the N10 million Alabi prayed for because “FRSC acted under the belief that it was statutorily empowered to so act,” adding that the commission’s innocent mistake “constitutes a mitigating factor as to the quantum of damages.”
The National Assembly, FRSC and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), were the defendants in the suit with reference No. FHC/L/CS/1234/13.