Justice Tsoho noted that section 28 (2) of the FRSC Act, 2007, which the Commission claimed empowered it to fine offending motorists, is in conflict with section 6 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), and as such cannot stand. He added that by imposing fines on alleged traffic offenders, FRSC had assumed a judicial function, which Tsoho ruled was unconstitutional and unenforceable. The ruling was made on September 6 in the case instituted by a legal practitioner, Mr. Tope Alabi, against the FRSC.
However, the Commission, in statement by the Corps Marshal, Mr Boboye Oyeyemi, last week, said an October 31 judgment of the Court of Appeal in FRSC vs. Emmanuel Ofoegbu made it clear that the FRSC had statutory and constitutional powers to arrest, detain vehicles of road traffic violators, regulate and set deadline for the usage and renewal of motor vehicle licenses, number plates and driver licences.
The issue has generated so intense public interest that it would be useful for the Commission to seek further clarifications on the import of Justice Tsoho’s ruling before insisting on its assumed right to impose and collect fines, since the October 31 Federal High Court pronouncement was not a result of any appeal process regarding the earlier judgement.
As Justice Tsoho pointed out, “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.”
There has been considerable controversy surrounding the actions and pronouncements of the Commission in recent times which appear to be focused more on revenue generation rather than providing a body of road safety culture for motorists and other road users to imbibe in the long run.
Oyeyemi has denied the notion of that focus, emphasising that the Commission’s abiding interest was to preserve lives on Nigeria roads. But that is not the sense the public gets, because in its sometimes overzealous commitment to enforce traffic laws and reduce deaths and injuries in the country by 50 percent by the year 2020, the Commission’s officials seem to overlook details of the extant laws establishing it, and which clearly spell out their statutory and constitutional powers.
The FRSC Act and the National Road Transport Regulation (NRTR) of 2012 are very clear on the statutory powers of the Commission. Sections 4 and 5 of the Act explicitly say the Commission can arrest and prosecute erring motorists only after serving them with court processes or notice-of-offence sheet. Clearly, even in their ordinary meaning, the words highlight FRSC’s lack of locus to summarily impose penalties on motorists who are not given the opportunity to state their case, as they would before a judge.
The relief with which members of the public appear to welcome Justice Tsoho’s ruling should provide sufficient caveat for the FRSC to re-educate its field officers to abide strictly with the provisions of the extant regulations until a clearer legal picture is obtained.
The legal principle that no person can be condemned without being heard should be the applicable rule. Payment of a fine for an offence establishes the fact of a conviction, which suggests a court process. The Commission shoots itself in the feet if insists on being the complainant, the prosecutor and judge in its own case. The imposition of fine connotes conviction for an alleged offence, which can only rightly be done by a competent court.