MASERU — Police will now be able to release stolen goods they recover as exhibits even before a case is finalised.
This will also happen to goods recovered from suspects who flee.
Previously, goods recovered by the police could not be handed back to their rightful owners unless the case had been finalised.
Such goods could also only be returned to their rightful owners with the consent of the suspects.
For instance, if a person stole a car and the police recovered it they could not release it to the owner unless the court case had been finalised or the suspect had agreed to have the car handed back to the owner.
Because of this many people have waited for years to get back their stolen goods.
Some cars and goods have been kept at police stations for years.
The major problem is that most of the suspects skip bail and flee to South Africa before their cases have been finalised.
Due to weak controls some cars and goods have been stolen or stripped of parts while being kept as exhibits at police stations.
But now under the Criminal Procedure and Evidence (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2010, recently passed in parliament, all police have to do is to authenticate the ownership before they hand back the recovered goods to their owners.
Police will no longer have to seek the consent of the suspects. Nor will they need to wait for the case to be finalised in court.
The amendment, which is now going to the senate, means that if someone steals your car and is caught you can claim your vehicle immediately.
In the new law, a section of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (1981) which said stolen goods could only be returned to the owner “with the consent of the person from who it was seized” will be deleted.
The clause was based on the presumption that possession means ownership.
Police have complained that this clause made it difficult for people to recover their stolen goods.
The longer it took for a case to be completed the longer the police had to keep the goods.
And if the suspect disappeared the owner of the goods would have to wait even longer.The plight of the victim was made worse by the fact that most of the cases were never solved and the police had no way to get consent from the suspects.
Also, in some cases, suspects refused to give their consent for the stolen goods to be released to the rightful owners because they thought it would be tantamount to admitting guilt.
In the meantime police had to ensure that the goods were safe while they were in their custody.
Over the years this was becoming more difficult to do.
There have been cases where people have sued the police over goods damaged or stolen while in police custody.
Most of the cases relate to stolen cars.
The new law is meant to protect police from this liability or to limit the risk.
It will be in compliance with the international and regional documents ratified by Lesotho which include the “Agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Legal Assistance in the field of Combating Crime in the Sadc Region”.
Article 5 (3) of the agreement compels member states to observe that stolen properties are “returned to countries of origin”.
In the past police could not return goods stolen from foreign countries unless suspects had given their consent or the cases had been finalised.
There are however concerns that the new law might put the police into trouble if, for instance, recovered goods are released to wrong persons.