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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

I 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.

Prof. Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe