A Morning In Court in San Pedro: Know Your Local Laws…Always

Yesterday was not my usual Wednesday.  I was up a bit early – my alarm and back-up alarm, though not needed, had been set for 7am sharp.

I had a 9am appointment.  To Personally appear before the court of Summary Jurisdiction sitting at San Pedro Magistrate Court on Wendesday 27th October  TWO THOUSAND AND TWENTY ONE at 9:00am in the morning to answer the charge made against me.

But let me back up a bit.  I didn’t just get summoned to court out of nowhere!

Last Friday, October 22, I headed into town for a quick errand and on my return north, there was a police stop set up in front of the police station on the north side of San Pedro town.

A check.  For license, cart registration and insurance.  Standard stuff.  But…it turns out that our insurance sticker had expired.  In August.

The police officer asked me to pull over in front of the police station.  I pulled in, turned off the cart and waited for a dreaded ticket.

But…what I didn’t consider was that traffic tickets come from San Pedro’s Traffic Department NOT the police.

The officer came over to me a few minutes later, peeled the expired sticker off our “roof”, told me to lock up the cart and come inside the police station.

Driving uninsured is not just a traffic misdeamenor – it’s a bit more serious.  ANd I realized that I was not going to get out of this with a warning.

**Note:  Golf cart insurance costs about $50-75bzd a year.

I sat down inside the station – in the visitors’ area – and answered a few questions.  The officer asked me to make a call for bail.

BAIL!!!! My heart skipped a beat…or 10.

I had to call a friend – a resident or citizen of Belize – to sign for me.  SO that if I did NOT show up for court, they could have “the sum of Five Hundred Dollars” levied against him or her.

My bail provider/friend arrived, the officer filled in paperwork in quadruplet, read me my charges and we all signed the paperwork.

I could not drive my uninsured cart home – it was to remain locked in front of the police station until the insurance papers were up to date.

My charge to stand before the magistrate the following week:  “Used motor vehicle not covered by a third party risk insurance” contrary to section 3(1) of the motor vehicle Third Party Risk Insurance Act, Chapter 231 of the Laws of Belize Revised Edition 2011.

It turned out that I did have insurance – that we were in the process of updating the cart title from a previous business name to Jeff’s name…but…we didn’t have the paperwork.  So we worked to get that in order so I would be ready for court.

Back to yesterday, my court day.

Attire in court in Belize is to be taken seriously.  And that makes sense.  Looking like you slept on the beach the night before is not a good look in court anywhere.

Though I don’t know where it is officially written, it is well known that you must wear long pants or a skirt (for women), no bare shoulders and men must wear a shirt with a color.  (If you see a friend in town all dressed up – wearing long pants and proper shoes, everyone jokes – and is usually correct – that he is going to court!)

It was until relatively recently -2008 – that judge wore wigs in Belize’s Supreme Court.    And 2002 when a female attorney filed a motion to be allowed to wear pants.  Court is a more formal affair – not the spot for bathing suits and flip flops.

I wore my closest thing to long pants and a proper shoe.  The only closed toe shoes I own are sneakers!  I had a folder with my proper insurance documentation in hand.

I arrived at the police station – my vaccination card and id were checked – and I went upstairs to wait for my name to called.

** Full vaccination cards are needed to enter public buildings in Belize.  If not vaccinated, you need a negative test to enter.

A friend of mine was there – with the same charge.  And a handful of other people – about 10-12.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to ask strangers “what they were in for”.

Names started to be called just before 10am – to enter the court room.

The station was quite busy – it seems as though most of the police officers in San Pedro are new since the new change in government earlier this year.  Transferred to San Pedro from other parts of the country – perhaps to start with a clean slate.

The person with the same charge as me was called at about 11am.  She was given a $385bzd fine AND her driving license was suspended (in fact taken by the court) for ONE YEAR.  She was not allowed to leave the police station until the fine was paid (at the Treasury across town) and proof of payment was brought to the station.

I was starting to get nervous.  A suspended license – for one year- was way more than I even knew was possible!

About an hour later, at about 12:30pm, I was called into the court room and asked to step up on the stand.  A raised platform surrounded by a small wooden railing.  The court room, at the back of the police station, was stifling.  If excessive sweating points to a person’s guilt?  I was going to be locked up!

The view from the second floor of the San Pedro Police Station.

All the jokes that I had been getting from friends in the previous days:  “I’ll bring you a piece of cardboard so you can sleep in your cell”…”I’ll make sure to drop off soup for your dinner” were starting to feel eerily prescient.

The magistrate read the charges and the consequences being found guilty of these charges:  Fines up to $400bzd, the suspension of your drivers license for a year and/or jail time up to 6 months.

How do you plead?

Not guilty…I said…a bit too weakly.

I handed my insurance paperwork to the police offier/prosecutor who reviewed it and handed it to the magistrate.

My ducks were in a row.  And the case was dismissed but not before I was warned about the importance of up-to-date insurance and registration in a motor vehicle even IF the cart is borrowed or rented.

Thank goodness. Lesson most DEFINITELY learned.

I headed home…fairly exhausted (adrenaline?  excessive sweating?)…glad to have that over with.

WIth a stern reminder for everyone – make sure your vehicle’s paperwork is UP TO DATE!  A long morning in court…a potential for your drivers license to be taken?  Not worth it!

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