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Is vehicle forfeiture legal in traffic laws?

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By Abraham Adekunle

Aggrieved lawyer sues LASTMA for imposed fine, awarded damages of N750,000.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of people whose car are seized or impounded by officials of the Lagos State Transport Management Authority (LASTMA). Many of the vehicles are even auctioned and televised to the public. One of such stories is that of a Innocent Emeka, a Lagos-based movie producer, whose car was seized by LASTMA officials for driving past a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane when he was trying to enter an office in the Sabo area of Lagos. His vehicle was impounded for breaching the BRT corridor. In his defense, he claimed that there was no signpost there.

Mr. Emeka said he did not struggle with the officials even as he tried to explain to them that it was not intentional. At the LASTMA office, he was given a ticket to pay a sum of N70,000 in fines. He said that he was nudged to go to court, but he was advised to avoid the mobile court. Otherwise, he would be frustrated and his car would be auctioned like those that have been televised in the media. Emeka said, “I personally believe that it is abnormal to hide and wait to apprehend offenders when they could position themselves to direct people to the right route. You don’t set a trap, wait for your citizens to fall into it and you punish them.”

Aggrieved Lagos lawyer sues the traffic agency for fine imposed on him.

Many Lagos motorists have reported what happened to Mr. Emeka – the forfeiture of cars and their auctioning in accordance with the traffic laws of the state – as their daily experience. However, when the same happened to a Lagos lawyer, Mr. Lawal Aliyu, he was aggrieved by the fine imposed on him by LASTMA officials. Because of this, he sued the agency, Lagos State Government, and the state’s attorney general at the Lagos State High Court.

Mr. Aliyu specifically filed the suit to challenge the N20,000 fine imposed on him by LASTMA for an alleged traffic offence and another N10,000 towage fine, which he was forced to pay by the traffic enforcement agency. Justice Olalekan Oresanya in his decision held that it was unconstitutional for LASTMA to impose fines and tow vehicles of an alleged traffic offender without a valid court order. He also awarded damages of N750,000 against LASTMA in favor of the plaintiff.

Court rules that LASTMA cannot impose fine without court order.

Justice Oresanya narrowed down the issues in the case to three and resolved all in favor of the plaintiff, relying on Sections 34, 36 and 41 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), among others. On the impoundment of his car, the judge held that there is no section of the Lagos State Traffic Management Law (2018) that permits the derogation of the applicant’s right to freedom of movement. Every citizen has a fundamental human right of freedom of movement.

In regards to the fines and towing fee imposed on the plaintiff, the court said a careful perusal of Section 27(1) b, c, d and e of Traffic Management Law relied upon by the respondents revealed that LASTMA cannot impose fine without arraigning an alleged traffic offender in court. The court added that it amounted to ignoring fair hearing and being a judge in one’s case. Also, the court chastised the agency for the practice of forcibly seizing vehicles of alleged traffic offenders, saying it is the height of oppression. This was why the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to damages and compensation for the infringement on his fundamental rights.

Lagos Government filed an appeal, says agency only enforces LSTRL 2018.

Meanwhile, the Lagos State Government has announced in a statement by the Ministry of Justice that it has on September 30, 2022 filed a Notice of Appeal against the court decision. The statement said, “The state government reviewed the judgment and dissatisfied with same, has exercised its constitutional right of appeal by filing a notice of appeal and an application for stay of execution of the judgment has also been filed. Consequently, members of the public are therefore advised to be law abiding and ensure compliance with relevant Laws of the State.” When the spokesman for LASTMA was contacted, Mr. Adebayo Taofik, said the agency only reinforces the Lagos State Transport Reform Law (LSTRL) 2018. “Our primary responsibility is to monitor and control traffic, but enforcement comes in when you have stubborn drivers, who might want to do their wish on the road,” he said.

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