Gwynne Ebanks has lived in Cayman for nearly 30 years. She has a good job, has owned several homes, and was granted Permanent Resident status some years after coming here from the United States in the late 1970s.
In short, she’s not a person who is very familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system.
Not until recently, anyway.
Ms Ebanks filed a complaint with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service on 17 July titled ‘Excessive, unnecessary, harsh and humiliating treatment on behalf of West Bay RCIP’ following her arrest for an unpaid parking ticket.
Ms Ebanks said she can’t remember getting the parking ticket she was arrested for on 16 July. She has never been shown a copy of it, even when she paid $25 for the citation in court. The last ticket she remembers getting was eight to 10 years ago.
But on the morning of 16 July, Ms Ebanks said she was taken into custody, put in back of a prisoner transport vehicle, driven to a holding facility underneath the George Town court house and briefly placed in lock up with two criminal suspects.
Ms Ebanks said she was eventually taken out of the holding area after speaking to a guard, who after he realised she was there for a parking citation, allowed her to walk into the court room to await a hearing on her offence.
‘If I hadn’t spoken to that officer…he was very nice,’ Ms Ebanks said during an interview with the Caymanian Compass. ‘He understood the situation. This was not right.’
But according to the RCIPS, it was right. In fact, it’s exactly what the police service said is supposed to happen.
According to a statement released by police on 19 July: ‘The RCIPS has a duty to execute warrants that are issued by the courts. People under arrest must all be treated the same way and we cannot differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ prisoners.’ (Single quotations were part of the issued statement.)
The statement continued: ‘We take all criminal offences seriously and that includes addressing what some may consider to be the ‘little things’ such as unpaid parking tickets.’ (Again, single quotes were included in the original statement.)
Ms Ebanks was first contacted by police the afternoon of Friday, 13 July. In her statement about the incident, she said she had received a voice mail from West Bay police station commander Angelique Howell. Ms Ebanks said Chief Inspector Howell told her she had a warrant for Ms Ebanks’ arrest.
Ms Ebanks said she asked several times what the warrant was for, and was eventually told it was for a traffic violation. When she arrived at the police station around 5pm the same afternoon, she said she was told by an RCIPS sergeant that she was under arrest. Ms Ebanks said the sergeant could not produce the warrant or a copy of the traffic citation and eventually told her he would let her go, after telling her to report back to the police station Monday morning.
Police officials point to this as an instance where officers used discretion in not arresting Ms Ebanks, which was within their rights to do.
‘There is an element of common sense that comes into this,’ RCIPS Chief Superintendent John Jones said. ‘For example, you get somebody that’s wanted on non-payment for say, a parking ticket. On paper, we could go out and arrest that person…late on a Friday afternoon with the full knowledge that that person would have to remain in custody on Saturday and Sunday before going to court.’
Ms Ebanks said she contacted Chief Inspector Howell again on Monday before she was due to turn herself in. She asked if she could go into her office before reporting to the police station, and was told not to. Ms Ebanks said she then asked for details of the warrant again, and was refused.
When she arrived at the station at about 8.50am Monday, Ms Ebanks said a police constable read the arrest warrant to her. She said it was the first time she learned her arrest was for not showing up to court on a parking offence. It was the first time Ms Ebanks was informed of her offence, but she was not told the date and time it had occurred.
Ms Ebanks said she was taken into the station for fingerprinting and a mug shot. She was then escorted, with two other female prisoners, into the back of a prisoner transport vehicle.
‘It’s a metal cage; you…have a peephole where you can peep out. It had metal seats. It was hot and there was very little circulation, if any,’ Ms Ebanks said during the Compass interview. ‘I can’t understand why I had to be put into a metal cage like a criminal to be transported.’
After arriving at the court house, Ms Ebanks said she and the other two prisoners were taken into a hallway that included several holding cells. Ms Ebanks said there were male prisoners in the hallway ‘wandering around.’ She said she refused to walk into that situation, prompting the officers to place the male prisoners into cells.
Ms Ebanks said she was then taken into one of the cells with the two other female prisoners. She said in her statement that the male prisoners made ‘foul, lewd, gross comments’ as she walked by their cells.
After about five to 10 minutes, Ms Ebanks said a prison guard arranged for her to get out of the holding area and to sit in the courtroom until her matter could be heard.
Her case was heard by a judge shortly after 1pm. The court informed Ms Ebanks that her ticket was received in July 2006 at around 9pm while her vehicle was parked outside Sunset House. Ms Ebanks said she was unaware of the ticket, and the scheduled court appearance in August 2006.
She agreed to pay the $25. The court did not levy any other charges.
Later that day, Ms Ebanks said she discussed the incident with Inspector Eustace Joseph of the RCIPS discipline unit.
She wrote the following in conclusion of her statement on the matter: ‘It is clear that any law abiding citizen can be taken by the RCIP, and treated in this foul humiliating way over a minor offence that the person may not have any knowledge of.
‘The actions taken against me were excessively abusive, harsh and extremely humiliating without just cause.’
In its statement on the matter, RCIPS denied its actions were out of character with the normal process of serving warrants from the court.
‘In this instance the officers did exercise some discretion and chose not to arrest the lady on Friday as this would have meant she would spend the weekend in custody waiting for court on Monday.’
‘If tickets are paid on time, it is not necessary for the courts to issue a warrant.’
Chief Superintendent Jones, commenting generally on cases where warrants are issued, said police must have a way of forcing scofflaws to appear before the court.
‘What’s the alternative to that? Do we…say ‘will you please make your own way down to the court?” Mr. Jones said. ‘They’ve already had the opportunity of paying the fine of their own volition. We’d much prefer not to be having to enforce these warrants. There are probably more important things for us to be getting on with.’
‘The bottom line is, if a patrolling officer comes across somebody that’s got warrant outstanding for them, they’ll be arrested,’ Police Commissioner Stuart Kernohan said. ‘It’s a legally enforceable court document and it needs to be enforced.’
Ms Ebanks said she believes the entire incident was an ‘outrageous abuse’ of police powers, and asked department officials to apologise.
‘Would they want their mothers, or aunts, or grandmothers treated this way?’ she asked.