A number of months ago an incident occurred involving a private home that was approached by several police officers arriving in a truck. They presented the owner with an official looking sheet of paper and claimed that they had been sent to search the premise. The owner obliged and opened the main gate and what resulted was a nightmare. The men entered the home and then proceeded to threaten the people within. Within minutes, they had tied everyone up and began stealing everything of value. If anyone had been watching from a neighboring house, they would have thought that everything was normal. The police had been allowed to enter and after the gate had closed nobody could see the men loading up the truck nor could they imagine the distress of the inhabitants.
This type of scenario is all too frequent these days. What should one be aware of if faced with a similar situation? What are your rights? What are the rights of law enforcement regarding yourself and your property? And finally, what do you need to know to prevent a situation like this from happening to you and your place of business or family home?
First of all, it is important to understand the different divisions of police here in Costa Rica as well as their roles and rights. There are 2 basic divisions when it comes to law enforcement. The first division is Administrative Law Enforcement and the second is Local Law Enforcement. Administrative law enforcement deals with cases that can be a danger on a national level. They do not wear uniforms and are plain clothed. This sector includes the OIJ (Judicial Investigation Organization), the PCD (Drug Control Police), and Immigration Police. The most common on a public level are the OIJ and the PCD. These squads are not the ones that will be politely knocking at your door requesting entrance. The OIJ is sent out to rescue kidnap victims, find wanted felons and negotiate hostage situations. When they or the DITA are sent to an address it is so they can take the location by surprise and force.
The second division of law enforcement includes The Fuerza Publica and other units like Frontier Police, Touristic Police and Transit Police to name the most common. They are uniformed with their unit clearly marked on the breast and their vehicle. These units are an aid to the administrative units. They deal with everyday law enforcement and petty crimes.
It is important to understand that if an officer with a notice or summons arrives at your door he will most often come alone (maximum two officers), usually on a motorbike clearly marked as a police vehicle and will present you with two copies: an original for you to keep and a copy for you to sigh that he will keep. They will not come by truck. They only deliver between the hours of 8am and 5pm. If a police officer comes to your place of business or home, make sure that you keep these points in mind. Always ask why he is there and what the delivery pertains to. If it seems improbable or suspicious take that as a warning sign. Remember that you have two options within your rights when in this situation. The first is to ask the officer to slip the paper under the door or drop it to the ground and back away until you can read and sign the paper, the second is to ask the officer which police station he represents, and to tell him that you will personally go to the station to sign the documents and that you will not open the door.
Also remember that if an officer comes to your door and asks to enter the premise you have every right to deny entry unless he has an official warrant to see your property and is accompanied by a functionary (called a fiscal in Spanish)whose job it is to remain impartial and be a witness to the police investigation . Even if he presents you with documents, don't just open the door. It is important to always:
- Call the nearest Fuerza Publica station to confirm the situation. It is always up to the office nearest to you to dispatch any officers within their area of command. It is important to have the number to the station at hand (posted on the fridge for example).When you call ask if the station is aware that officers are at your address and try to give them information such as full names and badge numbers. If the station did not send the officers, ask them to send someone over right away and then remain indoors until the authorities arrive.
- Call your lawyer. Explain the situation and ask him to come over right away. If the situation is legitimate, you have the right to explain to the police that you will not open the door until your lawyer arrives. Your lawyer will act as a witness should something not be done to code and will also be able to counsel you on your rights.
If you do not know the number to the local Police station, or do not speak Spanish, you can call 911 and explain the situation to an English speaking representative. They will be able to contact your nearest police office and confirm or deny the dispatch.
- If you find out that the officers at your door are false, call family members, employees or anyone else that should be on their way to your location and tell them not to come over until further notice. You don't want to put anyone in danger if things get physical when the authorities confront the suspects. Also you don't want anyone to become a potential hostage or target for the suspects.
These safety procedures also apply to anybody that comes to your door unsolicited. You always want to call the company office they claim to represent and confirm the situation. Do not ask the person at the door for the number if you don't have it available. Better to call 1113 and ask the ICE representative to give you the number you need. You don't want to be calling the suspects friends to confirm his identity. If things are not right, call 911 immediately.
Lastly it is important to do full background check on any and all employees that work for you. These types or robberies are almost always inside jobs. The suspects need to know how many people are at the location and what is of value inside before they begin setting up a plan to rob you. They do not just pick random homes or businesses to stop at.
Even when a program like DATUM does a background check on your employees you can't be too sure. DATUM only gives you information that is registered nationally. If for example a person is a rapist but has never been caught, the information will not appear on DATUM. It is always better for your safety to use a reputable security company to do a thorough check of not only the person in question but also his family members. Knowing what kind of friends a person has, and where they are frequenting can often give you all the information you need. You also don't want to be hiring someone who's brother or cousin runs with a gang or has been arrested for theft in the past. A good security company will be able to provide you with that information.