TCM: The Law of Self Defense in Panama

Approximately two weeks ago an expat, an ex-policeman from Oregon, living in Puerto Armuelles, was convicted of murder by a 7-0 vote of a jury in David.

There is much discussion as to why this man was convicted. To prevent a reoccurrence in Boquete I asked Lic. Julio Espinosa who is local attorney to speak about the law of self defense in Panama.

To appreciate this and other criminal laws in Panama, understand that unlike most developed countries, in Panama if you are arrested for a crime, you are presumed guilty unless you can prove youself innocent.

The following is an unofficial translation of the law.

Acts of self-defense that the local courts may find justified are as follows:    

    • The existence of an unjust aggression, actual or imminent.
    • Using a rational means to prevent or repel aggression.
    • Lack of sufficient provocation on the part of one who advocates or is defended
    • It is presumed to be acting reasonably in self-defense to repel an attack against you,  when without your consent, a person has entered your residence, dwelling, house or room.

What this means is simple in explanation but never simple if you are the person arrested.

The last, highlighted point first. IF YOU ARE IN THE PLACE YOU ARE LIVING, your home, a home you are house sitting, where you are residing and you act to defend yourself from a person who did not have your consent to enter the dwelling the burden shifts. You are presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. It does not cover your car, your front yard or someone you invited into your dwelling.

If this does not apply and you use lethal force, you need to prove the following.

There wast agression against you, actual or imminent and you used a RATIONAL means to prevent or repel the aggression. This section implies that you cannot use excessive force, you cannot shoot someone for hitting you with a fist, repelling a machete attack might be permissible since it is lethal force being met with lethal force. You also must show you or the person you defended did not provoke the attack. Note, the burden of all of this is on the person committing the act. You are presumed guilty if charged.

I can not discuss the case in Puerto Armulles because I do not know all the facts presented to a jury. I will posture this parallel hypothetical situation based upon the accounts of the crime I have heard.

The shooter was a member of a neighborhood watch group. He was watching a neighbor’s house, not residing in it. He witnessed a burglary in progress, armed himself with a shotgun and proceeded to the house. He confronted the burglar, who threatened him with a machete. He shot the burglar, who died waiting for a delayed ambulance. This account, true or not, is the basis for the hypothetical discussion below.

In my untrained interpretation of the law of Panama as stated above applied to the hypothetical shooting in the facts related above. (Note: this is a hypothetical because I do NOT know the facts only the internet chatter) :

1. The shooting did not take place in the dwelling of the shooter.

2. The shooter entered another, unoccupied dwelling with his weapon in an effort to stop a burglary.

3. He was threatened with a lethal weapon and he used lethal force.

It was not his dwelling, he left his dwelling to investigate he was armed. He acted as if he was a policeman, he was not. In doing that, under the law, as I read it, his action of entering the premise armed, could be interpreted as having provoked the machete attack. In that case the the law provides no protection.

You are at home and a neighbor asks you to watch their house. You see a person enter the window, what should you do.

1. Call the police or the Alto al Crimen Hotline 6477-6662  take out your camera and take some photos.

2. Do NOT grab your shotgun and run to confront the burglar.

Crimes against property do not justify death, not in Panama.

Unless you are a police officer in Panama you have no business taking a weapon or trying to stop a crime. The exception is defending another person or yourself, if you or that other person did not provoke the attack. Protecting property even within your own dwelling is not unless you are threatened. The law only changes the presumption of guilt.

I did try a recording of this but I lack the tools to edit it so it is omitted.

If you have additional questions please consult a qualified Panamanian lawyer who is a specialist in Criminal law. Please do not read anything is this post as legal advice, I am not qualified to offer legal advice in Panama and I, not Julio wrote this post.

Edificio Don Alejo, Oficina No. 8
(Edificio de la Caja de Ahorros y El Constructor),
Boquete, Chiriquí, República Panamá,
Télefax (507) 720-2941 y Móvil (507) 6677-5077

Exciting day in David

I am not a usually a source of news of Panama, today I will pass one two tidbits, well one bit of ceviche and the other a whale. Fisherman shut down the port of Pedregal near David today, protesting a new law proposed to ban longline fishing. While they were making ceviche the freshest fish in Pedregal,  the French announced the whale, Noriega is being extradited to Panama. Panamanians I spoke to today were not pleased to hear the ex-dictator is returning. He is still both loved and feared depending upon which side of the fence you sat and still sit.

I heard all of this as I jumped through the confounding bureaucracy of Panama one more time. In November my passport was stolen, in January I received a new passport and remembered a boquete.ning post by Keith Woolford, the car guy, about needing to change car registration when you have a new passport. I called Keith and he prepared me for the gauntlet, after my experience I think I should prepare you with my slightly different experience.

If you have a Pensionado Visa and receive a new passport take it, a copy of it and two passport photos with you and visit immigration. Their new hours in David are 9am -3pm. You need to register your new passport number if you have a Pensionado Visa. We offered them a copy of my new passport, but they refused it and made their own, I think they preferred black and white to my stunning color copy. It was a little scary when the clerk had to ask what country issued the US Passport. If I did not offer a copy, I am sure they would have asked for one, so be prepared. There was no cost and only about fifteen minutes of paper shuffling, now my passport has a new stamp saying registered. I expected they would want to do a new Visa with the new number, but they said no. I was told if I want a new Carnet (visa) I need to go to Panama City and pay $100, but I was assured I do not need one. The only thing I am sure of is that sometime in the future this will bite me in the posterior.

Next I needed to change my car registration to reflect the new passport number. Keith prepared me for part of this insanity of bureaucracy, let me provide you a checklist so you can prepare the correct pile of papers.

  1. Go to National Bank of Panama and deposit $20 in the account of the ATTT, 050200078, keep your yellow copy of the deposit slip
  2. Go to ATTT in Chiriqui mall and request a Paz y Salvo from the ATTT cashier using your old passport number, cost $0.25
  3. Find your original Resistrario Unico de Propiedad Vechicular, take it,
  4. Find your Certificado de Inspeccion Vechicular, the one you needed to get license plates. Make a copy of your new passport, the inspection document, the paz y salvo.
  5. Next step depends upon where your car is registered, mine is in David so I went to the Municipo building
  6. In the Municipo I paid the Municipal cashier $10 for a document called a Certification Placa and I took that the window where they distribute plates. They disappeared for a while and then returned with still another piece of paper I needed.
  7. Finally I took the original Registration document with my old passport number, the various copies, the document from the Municipo and my tired bones to the ATTT window in the Municipo not the ATTT in the mall.
  8. After a few minutes I had a new Registration with my new passport number in the block for my cedula number. My cedula number which is the number on my Visa has not changed so I wonder why I did any of this. Before the numbers matched, now a day and $30.25 later they no longer match. Enter the agent of confusion of Panama.

Finally I went with all the papers, a copy of the passport, my Visa (carnet) and drivers license to the Sertracen office back in the Chiriqui mall to get a new drivers license., something else I was told must change. They looked at the pile of papers, asked why I was there. The clerk then consulted some one locked in a broom closet, she returned and said, “come back when your license expires”. At least the number of my drivers license matched my Visa, which does not match the passport. Unfortunately the spelling of my name is different on each document, but I will leave that for still another day in David.

Welcome to Panama where the procedures change daily with no notice to anyone.


Update: When my drivers license expired I took it, the copy of my old passport and the new passport to Sertracen. The clerk scrutinized all, disappeared into the same broom closet, emerged and continued the process of issuing a replacement license. They tested my eyes, my ears and my patience waiting.

New Traffic Law, It’s about time

Credit to Don Winner, www.panama-guide.com. for this translation.

Law 21 of 28 May 2010

Which dictates measures on minor traffic accidents which occur on the public streets of the country.

The National Assembly Decrees:

Article 1: When a minor traffic accident occurs on the public streets in the country, the drivers involved should move the vehicle out of the roadway, before the interchange of the “Single and Definitive Form” described in Article 4.

Article 2: For the previous article, a minor traffic accident is any collision occurring between one or more motor vehicles, whose damages, produced by the impact, permit the vehicles to be moved out of the roadway by their drivers, as long as the vehicle occupants or third persons were not injured in any way, in which case the elements described in Article 5 will be applied.

Article 3: The Ground Transit and Transportation Authority, together with the Department of Traffic Operations of the National Direction of the National Police, will adopt a “Single and Definitive Form” which will be used by the drivers involved in minor traffic accidents to capture the necessary data in order to determine responsibilities.

Article 4: The drivers of motor vehicles involved in a minor traffic accident will exchange the Single and Definitive Form, which they will have in their vehicles, which will contain the following information;

1. The general information of the people involved.

2. The description of the vehicles.

3. The name of the street or avenue, the neighborhood, district, and province where the accident occurred.

4. The circumstances of the time, manner, and place where the accident occurred.

5. The approximate time, the weather conditions, the circumstances in the road, and the final position of the vehicles. If possible, the facts should be proven through photographs, videos, or any available technology that facilitates a description of the accident. The drivers or the owners of the vehicles will present the Single and Definitive Form to the Ground Transit and Transportation Authority and copies of the insurance documents for the vehicle within seventy two hours after the occurrence of the accident.

Article 5: When a traffic accident occurs in which the vehicles involved suffer damages prohibiting them from being moved out of the roadway by their drivers, or if the vehicle occupants or third parties are injured in any way, the presence of an inspector from the Department of Traffic Operations of the National Direction of Operations of the National Police will be necessary, who should fill out a traffic accident form to determine responsibilities. Also, the presence of an inspector might be required if the parties involved do not reach an agreement with regards to who is responsible for the minor traffic accident after having moved the vehicles.

Article 6: Driver’s licences for those people who are older than 70 years of age will be valid for two years, with the exception of the restrictions for violations established by law and regulations, and at a 50% discount in cost.

Article 7: The Executive Branch will issue regulations on this law within sixty days from it’s proclamation.

Article 8: This law will take effect the day after it’s proclamation.

Project 59 of 2009 approved in third debate in the Justo Arosemena Palace, Panama City, 30 April 2010.

Signed, President of the National Assembly, Jose Luis Varela R.

Signed, General Secretary of the National Assembly, Wigberto E. Quintero G.

(End of Translated Law)

Don Winner’s Comment: Click on this link to download a copy of the original Spanish language version of this law to your computer. I am going to put a copy of this law, in Spanish, in the glove box of my vehicles so I can show it to other drivers who might not be aware that the rules have changed.

Observations: The “spirit and intent” of this law is to allow drivers to move their vehicles out of the roadway, exchange information, and be on their way without having to wait four or five hours for a traffic cop to show up. Right now, if you are involved in a minor fender bender in Panama City at 4:30 pm, you’re probably not going to get home before 9:00 pm at the very best. The situation will be worse if it’s raining, if there are a lot of accidents simultaneously due to bad weather or visibility, etc. In most cases one drivers says “yup, I screwed up, my fault…” Now, both drivers will be allowed to simply exchange information and report the details to the ATTT. They make a decision and the guilty party will have to pay for the damages. Done, quick and easy. However if someone is injured you can’t move the vehicles. Also, if there is some disagreement over who was at fault, apparently you’re supposed to move the vehicles and wait for a traffic cop to show up anyway to break the tie. But, you’re still supposed to move the vehicles out of the roadway no matter what, if no one is injured, and if the vehicles are not so badly damaged that they can’t be moved. Anyway, I see this as one more small little incremental step towards fixing problems with traffic in Panama City. The law was published in the Gaceta Oficial on 2 June 2010 so the ATTT has until 2 August 2010 to produce and issue the new “Single and Definitive Form” that we will all have to carry in our cars from now on.

Permission To Use and Disseminate: Please spread this information far and wide. I don’t care if you use this information, including the translation, as long as you give credit to the source as www.panama-guide.com.

Panama Law 13 of 2008 No Smoking revisited

I had enough misinformation, including my own, so finally I found the New Panama Smoking Law in the official Gazette. Although strict it is nothing like what I was originally told nor what other commentators including me have stated.

Here are the relevant consumer issues translated.

Article 5. Se prohíbe el consumo de tabaco y de los productos de este en: It prohibits the consumption of snuff and products in this:

1. 1. Las oficinas públicas y privadas nacionales, provinciales, comarcales y locales. The public and private offices national, provincial, district and local levels.

2. 2. Los medios de transporte público en general y en las terminales de transporte terrestre, marítimo y aéreo. The means of public transport in general and in the terminal land, sea and air.

3. 3. Los lugares cerrados de acceso público donde haya concurrencia de personas. The enclosed public access where there is concurrence of people.

4. 4. Los ambientes públicos y privados, abiertos y cerrados, destinados a actividades deportivas. The public and private environments, open and closed, for sports activities.

5. 5. Las áreas comunes de los edificios públicos y privados de uso comercial y doméstico. The common areas of public buildings and private commercial and domestic use.

6. 6. Los ambientes laborales cerrados. The closed working environments.

7. 7. Las instituciones educativas y de salud, públicas y privadas. The educational and health institutions, public and private. 

Here is a link to the law in Spanish Ley 18 2008