Lagos - A Federal High Court in Lagos has voided the powers of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) to impose fines on motorists for traffic offences.
Justice John Tsoho held that the FRSC could not turn itself into a court of law by punishing those who commit traffic offences.
A lawyer, Tope Alabi, had approached the court to declare that only a court of competent jurisdiction could pronounce a person guilty under Section 10 (4) and 28 (2) of the FRSC Act 2007.
Other defendant in the suit was the Attorney General of the Federation.
A copy of the judgment made available to newsmen in Lagos on Wednesday quotes Justice Tsoho as declaring the sections null and void for being inconsistent with Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution.
The judge also awarded N1 million damages in favour of the plaintiff because officials of the FRSC had confiscated his vehicle and driver’s licence.
According to him, while FRSC was statutorily empowered to arrest and fine traffic offenders, a closer look at the definition of the word “fine” means a pecuniary criminal punishment or civil penalty payable to the public treasury.
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Justice Tsoho said: “In the instant case, however, the involvement of the element of arrest takes the imposition of fine by the FRSC to the realm of criminal punishment.
“From these definitions, it is obvious that the act of sentencing is a judicial action or exercise, and imposition of fine connotes conviction for an alleged offence.
“It is thus very clear that the FRSC, not being a court of law, cannot impose fine, especially as it has no powers to conduct trial.
“Hence, the exercise of the statutory powers given to the defendant under the Act as pertain to imposition of fine is clearly a usurpation of judicial powers exclusively vested in the courts.
“In the circumstances, I endorse the plaintiff’s submission that by virtue of Section 1(3) of the Constitution, the power to impose fine conferred on FRSC by the enabling Act is null and void to the extent of its inconsistency with the Constitution,” the judge held.
Besides, Justice Tsoho held that the FRSC resorted to “legislative absurdity” when it imposed a fine of 3 000 on the plaintiff, rather than the N2 000 statutorily prescribed.
“FRSC’s function should not go beyond issuance of mere notices of offence.
“It is a cardinal principle of natural justice that no person can be condemned without being heard.
“It is in observance of this that a person alleged to have committed an offence has to respond to such allegation before a court of law during trial,” he said.
According to the judge, the plaintiff was issued a Notice of Offence Sheet on April 4, 2013, but FRSC did not take him to court for five months before the plaintiff filed his suit on September 9, 2013.
“The vital question to ask is how long would it take the FRSC to reasonably commence prosecution of a traffic offence?
“The plaintiff was not under obligation to wait indefinitely for redress due to FRSC’s inaction or laxity,” the judge added.
“I hold the view that the confiscation of the vehicle was unnecessary in the first place, though the FRSC spiritedly sought to justify it.”
The judge then granted 11 of the 14 reliefs sought by the plaintiff, adding that he also awarded N1million in his favour instead of the N10 million prayed for.
Justice Tsoho held that the FRSC acted under the belief that it was statutorily empowered to do so, adding that its innocent mistake constituted a mitigating factor as to the quantum of damages.