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The Criminal Justice System

The constitution assigns judicial power to the Supreme Court, whose chief justice is appointed on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition (see Judiciary , ch. 9). Two other justices also served on the Supreme Court; they were also appointed by the governor general on the advice of the judicial and legal services section of the Public Service Commission. Immediately below the Supreme Court was the Summary Jurisdiction Court, which was responsible for criminal matters, and the District Court, which heard civil cases. The Summary Jurisdiction Court and the District Court were established in each of the nation's six district capitals: Belize, San Ignacio, Corozal, Orange Walk, Dangriga, and Punta Gorda. Magistrates presided over these courts, which had wide jurisdiction in summary offenses and limited jurisdiction in more serious offenses. Juvenile offenders were tried in district family courts established by the Family Courts Act of 1988.

Magistrates referred serious criminal cases to the Supreme Court, where a jury system was in operation. Appeals from Summary Jurisdiction Court were referred to the Supreme Court; appeals from the Supreme Court were referred to a Court of Appeal, which met on an average of four times a year. Final appeals were made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London in cases involving interpretation of the constitution.

The principal source of the nation's criminal law was the criminal code of 1980. The code had two sections. The first section defined general legal principles and set forth standards of criminal liability, addressing such issues as intent, negligence, conspiracy, and justifiable force. The second section of the criminal code defined crimes and their punishments.

The criminal code provided for the death penalty for persons convicted of criminal homicide. Under the constitution, the death penalty could be adjudged only after the judge of record submitted a report to the Belize Advisory Council, which in turn advised the attorney general as to the appropriateness of the sentence.

The government amended the criminal code in April 1987 to provide stiffer penalties for rape, kidnapping, blackmail, and robbery. At the same time, the government raised the penalties for offenses subject to summary jurisdiction.

In addition to the penal code, several other statutes covered criminal offenses. The most important of these was the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1990, which was the nation's principal drug legislation. This act repealed and replaced the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1980, which was deemed inadequate to meet the challenges of the explosive growth in the drug trade during the 1980s. The 1990 legislation provided for the establishment of a National Drug Abuse Control Council, which was to review the current state of Belize's illegal narcotics trade and advise the prime minister on measures to restrict availability, provide for treatment and rehabilitation, educate the public, and advise farmers on alternate crops. The act called for fines of up to Bz$25,000 and imprisonment of five to ten years for less serious cases of drug trafficking. Persons convicted of more serious offenses by the Supreme Court were liable to fines not less than Bz$100,000--or three times the street value of the illegal commodities seized--or were subject to seven to fourteen years of imprisonment, or both. Penalties for public officials and members of the National Assembly, the judiciary, the police, and the BDF were more severe. The 1990 law also provided for forfeitures of all aircraft, vessels, and vehicles used in illegal trafficking and for forfeiture of all proceeds derived from this activity.

Criminal procedure followed British models. Officials working under the Directorate of Public Prosecutions handled cases. The constitution protects citizens from arbitrary search or seizure. The justice system regularly observed these protections. Criminal offenders were also accorded numerous protections. These protections included the right to a public trial and protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination. All persons were presumed innocent and were entitled to equal protection under the law.

The law required informing detainees of the cause of their arrest within forty-eight hours, and detainees were entitled to communicate with a lawyer. The law also required informing the accused of his or her rights, which included the right to judicial review of the validity of the detention. If arrested, the accused had to be brought before a judge or magistrate within seventy-two hours. The defendant was entitled to be present at all trials, to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution, and to call witnesses for the defense. The defendant had the right to trial by jury in serious criminal cases. The law guaranteed defendants the right to appeal any decision to the next higher court.

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As of mid-1991, no definitive studies that dealt comprehensively with national security matters in contemporary Belize had been published. For information on the development of the Belize Defence Force, the reader must search through issues of Belize Today, published in Belize City; the Latin America Report by the Joint Publications Research Service; and the Daily Report: Latin America put out by the Foreign Broadcast Information System. Current order-of-battle information is available in the International Institute for Strategic Studies' excellent annual, The Military Balance. The best overview of conditions of public order is contained in the sections on Belize in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, a report submitted annually by the United States Department of State to the United States Congress. (Various issues of the following publications were also used in the preparation of this chapter: Belize Today [Belize City]; Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: Latin America; Joint Publications Research Service, Latin American Report; Soldier [Britain]. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of January 1992

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