Abusing an obsolete law

In the telephone surveys conducted by radio and TV programs on Quezon City Rep. Michael Defensor’s intervention in behalf of four young women arrested for vagrancy, majority of the callers sided with the police and labeled Defensor’s act improper.  This is distressing.

The arresting policemen had asked the girls to come out of the pubrestaurant where they had been dancing.  Suspecting them of prostitution, they booked them for vagrancy.  The police and, apparently, a large section of the public, resent the idea that a congressman had come to the rescue of these women.  Some reporters have capitalized on Defensor’s admission that he knew one of the girls by calling her “Defensor’s friend,” as if to suggest that it was wrong for a public official to be acquainted with them.  The unstated message is that they were prostitutes and that the congressman could be a client.

In no court of law, however, would the police be able to prove a case for prostitution against these four women.  The arresting officers were aware of that, which is why they got them for vagrancy instead. Wandering aimlessly without any visible means of support, which is how vagrancy is understood, is largely a matter of police perception. Persons accused of vagrancy seldom have the will or the means to challenge the police action.  In contrast, habitual soliciting for paid sex is next to impossible to prove.

But, why should wandering aimlessly and having no visible means of support be considered a criminal offense?  Human rights advocates everywhere, who have demanded the scrapping of this obsolete law, are correct to call it a law against the poor.  Most civilized nations have repealed it.  We should follow their example.

Like many of our existing laws, the anti-vagrancy law grew out of a social and historical context that is alien to our culture and offensive to contemporary sensibilities.  Michel Foucault (Madness and

Civilization) traces its origins to a time in European history, roughly the mid-17th century, when begging and idleness became punishable offenses.  Those who were rounded up joined a cheap labor pool in periods of full employment.  On the other hand, in periods of unemployment, the drive against vagrants permitted “the re-absorption of the idle and social protection against agitation and uprisings.”  Such a law, Foucault said, drew its moral warrant from the prevailing ethical injunction against sloth and the belief in the redemptive value of sheer labor.

One would think that modern societies with liberal democratic pretensions should reserve no place in their book of statutes for this antiquated law.  But interestingly, it has survived as a versatile tool of law-enforcement, acquiring novel uses in the hands of an inventive police.  It has often allowed the police to make an arrest, even before they were fully justified to do so, in order to seize incriminating evidence or to take immediate custody of a person wanted for other crimes.  In countries like ours, the anti-vagrancy law has been the favored tool for rounding up suspected prostitutes and keeping them off the streets for a specified period, without having to go through the tedious process of proving a case in court.

Such a law belongs to an era when police constables possessed comprehensive powers of law-enforcement in the community.  “All charges and complaints were made to them, and they prepared affidavits and subpoenaed witnesses.  In case of flagrant crime, they were obliged to act swiftly – to arrest the perpetrator, interrogate him, hold him in prison, conduct an investigation, and gather evidence.” These were the duties of the police in early 18th century Europe, says the book “A History of Private Life.”  But times have changed.  These discretionary powers have been substantially clipped especially in the modern city where the rights to due process and to a lawyer’s counsel are guaranteed every citizen.

In the hands of corrupt policemen, the anti-vagrancy law has become a tool for extortion, a means for obtaining free sex, or for maintaining a lucrative protection racket.  It is an instrument of harassment against the poor, an all-round legal camouflage for a variety of unwarranted police actions.

Responsible policemen should have better definitions of their work than going after suspected vagrants or prostitutes.  If they are truly bothered about idle folk wandering aimlessly in the city, they could begin by rounding up the growing number of “taong grasa” in Metro Manila and putting them in the care of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.  If it is prostitution that disturbs them, they would do our society a lot of good if they go after the white slavery syndicates that lure young women from the provinces with promises of decent jobs in the city but sell them off as sex workers.

General Edgar Aglipay, the Police Director of the National Capital Region, is right to fight the obstruction of justice by public officials.  But he is looking in the wrong place.  Rep. Defensor believed that the rights of four young women from his constituency were violated when they were arrested for vagrancy.  He demanded their release in order to reverse an injustice.  He was right to do so.

Justice, meanwhile, is being obstructed every day in higher places of our society.  The good general’s crusade would find better use against those who do not hesitate to use the authority of their office to obstruct the course of justice in the prosecution of smugglers and stock market manipulators.


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