There have been a string of protests against the government recently, and the police in Taipei have started cordoning off areas where senior officials come and go, as well as announcing that the police will now have powers to inspect the ID cards of anyone who enters these areas and to look through their belongings.
According to the Council of Grand Justices’ Interpretation 535, the state authorizes the police to conduct spot checks on citizens in the interests of maintaining the peace and preventing crime, but this does not mean they can, regardless of the time, place or person, conduct spot checks and confiscate items, or perform random checks or interrogations.
Therefore, such police spot checks should be limited to occasions when a situation is already ongoing, or when it is objectively reasonable to suppose that a situation might arise in a given location, mode of transportation or a public space.
If they are to conduct a spot check on any given individual they must have reasonable cause to believe that person’s behavior already constitutes, or will give rise to, a danger before they can proceed. They must also observe the principle of proportionality and not exceed the needs of the situation.
Furthermore, according to this interpretation, although Article 6.1.6 of the Police Duties Enforcement Act (警察職權行使法) — to which it refers — stipulates that police can check IDs at designated public spaces, sections of road or control points, Article 6.2 adds the qualification that the police authorities are only allowed to designate cordoned off areas for the express purpose of preventing a crime, or of dealing with a major public security incident or social order situation.
Given this, the area that the Taipei police have cordoned off is not an area that has a high probability of a crime being committed nor is it for the purpose of maintaining public security. It is an area used by the public to protest and express their anger at the unfair and unjust implementation of policy by the government. Not only does the existence of this cordoned-off area go against the letter of the law and the interpretation of the grand justices, it is also a serious violation of citizens’ rights to the freedoms of expression and assembly.
Even if the public’s expression of their dissatisfaction with the government is regarded as some great scourge that necessitates spot checks to be conducted, according to Article 7.1.4 of the police act, the police are only allowed to stop and search people when a risk is perceived to their own life or to the lives of others. It is unlikely that these protesters, who are there only to express their dissatisfaction with the powers that be and the unfair way in which they govern, represent a risk of harm to the police or others.
To issue an order so that police officers can conduct checks on members of the public at will is to disregard the existence of the law, and constitutes a serious violation of the principle of rule by law, which brings us perilously close to descending into a police state.
The police should be there to protect the public and to be the vanguard of justice. Now, however, they have become a protective shield for government officials who do not listen to what the public has to say. This method may well make senior officials feel more comfortable and happy with the situation, but it is also turning the police into accessories to unjust politicians.
Wu Ching-chin is an associate professor of law at Aletheia University.
Translated by Paul Cooper