Criminalizing Civil Infractions

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 27, 2021

“All advanced legal systems condemn as criminal the sorts of conduct described in the Anglo-American law as treason, murder, aggravated assault, thievery, robbery, burglary, and rape.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI always wonder why an inefficient government demands that its citizens be efficient when it represents the epitome of inefficiency. Recently, the government put out its regulations regarding its intention to collect “Property Tax” which requires “that every person in possession of residential land, commercial land, agricultural land or a combination of any of the above (mixed use) in Trinidad and Tobago furnish a return containing the particulars…on or before 30th November 2021.” Failure to comply with the requirement constitutes “a criminal offence which is punishable by a fine of five thousand dollars ($5,000).”

I am not too sure what constitutes “a criminal act” but I am convinced that law and/or the interpretation of the law should not be left solely in the hands of the government and lawyers. Since I am not a lawyer I am trying to understand how I should view this regulation. Am I to believe that I would become a common criminal (or be seen as a common criminal) if I do not furnish a return to the lawful authorities within the stipulated period and be charged a fine of $5,000?

I used to believe that a criminal was a person who causes bodily harm to another or creates such a heinous act of moral turpitude that he loses his/her rights to be considered a worthy member of the society. Encyclopedia Britannica informs me that the traditional approach to criminal law “has been that a crime is an act that is morally wrong” and criminal sanctions were “to make the offender give retribution for harm done and expiate his moral guilt [and that] punishment was to be meted out in proportion to the guilt of the accused.”

I just keep wondering: If I missed the deadline and paid my fine (retribution), would I thereby atone for the pain I would have caused my country?

My dear friend retired from the teaching service in December 2019 after teaching for 41 years. The government owes her a gratuity of approximately $500,000. Every time she goes to the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Finance to pick up her check, she is told: “Come back. The check is not ready. Nobody is at work because of COVID.” She is also told: “We are not allowed to interact with the public because of COVID.” They give her a telephone number to call but no one answers when she calls.

Question: Does this behavior on government’s part constitute “a criminal offence for which it should be fined for holding back this woman’s gratuity. Given her declining health should this fine be doubled on a monthly basis?

Locke and Hobbes, in the classic social contract, were concerned about the safety of private property. Locke proclaims “the great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the Preservation of their property. Where law ends, tyranny begins.” Such an arrangement led Professor Charles Mills to conclude “part of the point of bringing society into existence, with its laws and enforcers of the law, is to protect what you have accumulated” (The Racial Contract.)

COVID placed a heavy toll on government revenues even as it stripped ordinary citizens of much of their resources. The increase in full and partial unemployment and a significant decline in the income of the taxpayer did not help matters much. One publication has noted: “The crisis has thus aggravated the usual asymmetry between the obligation to pay tax and the limited financial capacity of the debtor, or more simply, between the legal obligation to contribute to the state’s expenses and the debtor’s capacity to contribute” (World Finance, February 1, 2021).

In this context, I accept Afra Raymond’s view that property tax “is long overdue” and that next year when this tax regime goes into effect, it would be twelve years in which property owners have paid no taxes. He also tells us that the current estimates of property taxes to be collected “are in the order of $504M” (Trinidad Guardian, September 19), which should be of tremendous help to the country’s revenue.

I acknowledge that the government needs the revenue to conduct its business. But why rush to collect these forms by the end of November and impose a criminal fine on those of us who, for whatever reason, may not be able to fill them out while others may not have the resources to pay the “criminal fine” that is being imposed on them.

I am a law-abiding man. In my seventy plus years I have faced the court house once when my neighbors in Dinsley Village (both East Indians) and I were held and taken to the Arouca Police Station for protesting the building of the Trincity Mall on lands that were leased to the Dinsley farmers by the Trinidad Sugar Estates Company, now owned by another conglomerate. The case was dismissed. I would not have minded being declared a criminal for that act. However, I do not understand or accept that I must be deemed a criminal if I fail to fill in certain forms by the end of November.

It is an unjust act on the government’s part to penalize its citizen for not being able to pay a “criminal fine” since the government itself has reneged/is reneging on paying citizens substantial sums of money that it owes them and who suffer physically as they await “government’s generosity.”

The government should not criminalize its citizens when it is failing to pay some of them monies it owes them.

3 thoughts on “Criminalizing Civil Infractions”

  1. “Locke and Hobbes, in the classic social contract, were concerned about the safety of private property. Locke proclaims “the great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the Preservation of their property. Where law ends, tyranny begins.” Such an arrangement led Professor Charles Mills to conclude “part of the point of bringing society into existence, with its laws and enforcers of the law, is to protect what you have accumulated” (The Racial Contract.)” Selwyn Cudjoe
    Most readers of that paragraph would come to the conclusion that Locke, Hobbes and Charles Mills were all saying that as Selwyn quotes Charles Mills “part of the point of bringing society into existence… is to protect what you have accumulated”, in other words, to protect your property and by adding the quotation from Locke, tyranny begins when your property is not protected. Property is sacrosanct, if the government threatens your property, that is tyranny. But Locke, Hobbes and Charles Mills all had different views of the social contract. Locke and Hobbes were early proponents of the social contract, writing hundreds of years ago. Charles Mills who passed away recently, on September 20, 2021, was educated at Mona, UWI, Jamaica and the University of Toronto. His book “The Racial Contract” is considered one of the important contemporary works on the social contract. In an article in the New York Times, “The World lost a great philosopher this week”, Jamelle Bouie commemorated Mills as putting forward a different interpretation of the social contract from Hobbes and Locke. Selwyn’s quote from Mills, taken out of context, gives the opposite meaning to what Mills intended about property. To Hobbes and Locke, the social contract took man out of the “state of nature” where in Hobbes words, “life was nasty, brutish and short” to a state of civilized living where laws guided his behavior according to his natural rights and the rights of the governing body to which he had contracted. The social contract enabled man’s survival and his prosperity. Hobbes and Locke different according to what they thought constituted this state of nature, but in both cases, the social contract was a good thing, a necessary thing, something that enabled justice to be defined. To Charles Mills, on the other hand, the social contract was a racial contract. He begins his book with these words, “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today”. The social contract, according to Mills, “is not a contract between everybody, (“we the people”), but between just the people who count, the people who are really people, (“we the white people”), so it really a racial contract.”
    The state of nature differs in Locke from Hobbes. In Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war, of man against man all seeking to gain power over the other, because every person is a threat to one’s survival. The social contract is a way to get out of this state of war; the solution is contracting into absolute rule by a monarch, Leviathan. The state of nature in Locke is less threatening, man is guided by a sense of natural law, and the importance of property is introduced by Locke. There are three natural rights, according to Locke – life, liberty and property. According to Locke things like land and resources are held in common and are therefore free, the only thing that man has control of and is not free is his body. He body is his property and hence the labor produced by his body is his property. This is the essence of Locke’s theory of property; whatever is produced by your labor is your property and belongs to you. The social contract is therefore a matter of protecting your life, your liberty and your property. We can see Mill’s argument against this and his insistence that this is a racial contract, because where is the property produced by African slaves and who owns that property? In the context of Trinidad and Tobago, where is the property produced by African slave labor? Who owns that property? So Charles Mills’s assessment of the social contract is not one that says it is produces justice, on the contrary it produces injustice against the descendents of African slaves, because it has robbed them of the property produced by their labor.

  2. One cannot say much more about this article it touches on the theme of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. The speed at which citizens are criminalize under this regime is mind blowing.

    As KPB said “if the government not working for you, they working against you”. The highest offices in the land used to be places of integrity and respect. Today nothing but ridicule. As a good friend said to me as he stopped to help a lady whose vehicle shut down, “people in this place, just don’t care for others”.

  3. In Trinidad and Tobago, many of us have properties, land and houses, in fact because of this we forget, or overlook the fact that many don’t have property of any kind. They are the forgotten, the overlooked, the dispossessed; but they are many, they are legion. You find them cramped up in urban areas, living in overcrowded, dilapidated houses, many families living in one house. Most of them pay rent for squalid little spaces to live. In our history, there were those who after emancipation were discouraged and disincentivized from owning property, in fact in some cases it was illegal to own property (talk about criminalizing people), and in other cases there were those who, coming to the island to work in the sugar plantations, were given property, acres of land, to stay in Trinidad. That’s our history, and it had an ethnic dimension to it. Property needs infrastructure, it needs roads, drainage, garbage collection, electricity, water, it takes a hell of a lot of money from the treasury to maintain property and keep it going. For the last ten years property owners have not paid one cent of property tax, for us property owners that’s great, but what it does mean is that the people living in cramped up, dilapidated places, renting squalid little rooms, working from morning to evening, they are subsidizing us property owners. Money is coming from the treasury to subsidize the infrastructure, the maintenance, and the multitude of other expenses that is necessary to maintain our property. And it has an ethnic aspect to it. So the next time you hear axe the tax, remember who is paying for you to live in your fancy houses and to drive in your fancy cars. It’s the poor man renting his little room who is subsidizing you and your high life.

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