300 traffic cases on hold ahead of court ruling

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 September, 2008, 12:00am

Journalist appears in appeal court

More than 300 traffic cases have been put on hold while a dispute over the constitutionality of a regulation requiring a car owner to disclose the identity of a driver suspected of breaking traffic laws remains unresolved, a court was told yesterday.

Deputy director of public prosecutions Kevin Zervos SC said in the Court of Appeal that 352 prosecution proceedings were on hold by September 19 pending the outcome of the government's appeal for a review of a ruling made by Magistrate David Thomas in May.

Yesterday's appeal hearing followed a ruling made by Mr Thomas in the high-profile case of journalist Richard Latker.

Mr Thomas acquitted Latker of failing to comply with a notice that required him to provide the identity of the driver of his car, which allegedly jumped a red light in July last year.

Delivering his verdict on May 8, the magistrate ruled the requirement made by police under a provision of the Road Traffic Ordinance was unconstitutional and infringed on the car owner's right to remain silent - a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Accepting that the current regime affected one's right to silence, Mr Zervos contended yesterday that the right was not 'absolute' and could be restricted when there was reasonable justification.

He argued there was sufficient public interest for road safety to be such a justification, noting that there was a need to strike a balance between the interests of an individual and road safety, which he described as a 'serious social problem ... because cars are potential instruments of death and injury'.

Latker, acting in person yesterday, said the requirement was a 'compelled confession' which infringed on the dignity of an individual. He contended that the present regulation took away his right to silence, 'with a threat of imprisonment'.

The court heard that failing to satisfy the demand without reasonable defence constituted a crime with a maximum penalty of a HK$10,000 fine and six months' imprisonment.

Latker was charged in December and acquitted by Mr Thomas on May 8 in Kowloon City Court.

The magistrate declined to review his ruling on May 19 when the prosecution sought to adjourn it on the constitutionality issue pending a higher court's determination.

Yesterday, Mr Zervos criticised the magistrate for failing to follow a precedent requiring him to adjourn his ruling before he convicted or acquitted a defendant.

'After [the magistrate] made the ruling on the constitutionality, he should have adjourned and preserved the position in the magistrate's court while the matter was examined in a higher court,' Mr Zervos said.

Chief Judge Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, Mr Justice Michael Stuart-Moore and Mr Justice Frank Stock reserved their judgment yesterday.