With media reports of arrest and a criminal record for those caught flouting the laws on wearing a face mask in public, we discuss both the circumstances in which you risk arrest, and the substantial downsides of acquiring a criminal record.
Why is a criminal record to be avoided at all costs? How can you get rid of a record if you do end up with one?
We address both questions with a focus on the “admission of guilt fine” option you are likely to be offered after arrest and on why talking to your attorney before considering any such offer is essential.
“7,000 people have already been arrested for not wearing masks and most of them now have criminal records” (Police Minister Bheki Cele in mid-January.
We all know that wearing a face mask is the right and the safe thing to do, but it is also a legal requirement – and it’s one that you really don’t want to breach.
Firstly, can you be arrested for not wearing a mask?
The short answer is yes, the amended Disaster Management Act Regulations providing that – Everyone (except children under six) must always wear a face mask (covering nose as well as mouth!) when in a public place.
It is a criminal offence not to comply with a verbal instruction to wear a face mask by an “enforcement officer” (defined to include SAPS and SANDF members, “peace officers” such as magistrates, Justices of the Peace, correctional services officers, municipal law enforcement officers and other designated officials). There are also reports of arrests without such an instruction being given beforehand, and as the police appear to be using their interpretation of the Regulations to conduct these “arrests without warning”, rather be safe than sorry – assume that if you have no mask you risk immediate arrest and prosecution.
You are liable on conviction to “a fine or a period of imprisonment not exceeding six months, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
You need not wear a mask while undertaking “vigorous exercise” (not defined in the Regulations but presumably including fast running, cycling and the like – err on the side of caution here) provided that you continually maintain a distance of one and a half meters from any other person.
You could end up with a criminal record, and that’s real trouble.
You can of course elect to go to court to fight the charge, but often you will also be given the alternative of paying an “admission of guilt” fine.
It will be a tempting offer at the time but be careful – paying a fine is one thing but if you end up with a criminal record (an entry in the SAPS Criminal Record Centre database) you will regret it. Imagine for example a scenario where you apply for a job, or a travel visa, or a firearms licence, or for credit (such as a home loan). And suddenly up pops your long-forgotten criminal record, a nasty surprise at the worst possible time.
Plans to change the law so that only some admission of guilt fines will result in a criminal record have so far come to nought. So as the law stands you will end up with a “deemed” conviction and sentence – and thus a record – if you are arrested and your fingerprints are taken. Which is exactly what the Minister says will happen to you.
And once you have a criminal record, it’s not at all easy to get rid of it.
Three ways you can try to remove your criminal record
- Firstly, you can apply for “expungement” of the record to remove it from the CRC database, but that option is only available to you after 10 years and for certain “minor offences”. It will also take a long time to process – “20 – 28 weeks” per SAPS. Note that some specified minor convictions fall away automatically after 10 years – ask for specific advice.
- Secondly, you could ask a court to set aside your conviction and sentence – costly, not an immediate fix, and not guaranteed to succeed.
- Thirdly, you could hope that planned amendments to our criminal procedure laws will retrospectively come to your aid – speculative for now.
The bottom line – wear your mask, and don’t admit guilt without legal advice!