The controversial @pigspotter and Metro police

A Twitter user known as @pigspotter (aka “Cliff”) is making waves in local law enforcement. If you are not one of his 6 138 followers (at 10:26 SAST – the count was at 6 007 about an hour ago) then you may not be familiar with what this popular tweeter does. As his bio explains, its about notifying other road users about police road blocks and traps:

Let’s help each other expose where cops are hiding, trapping and roadblocking daily. I don’t follow any1 to avoid getting unusable tweets. Watch this space 😉

PigSpotter has become popular in a sort of “stick it to the Man” sort of way and seems to appeal to motorists who are tired of being harassed by ethically questionable police officers on the roads who have also acquired something of a reputation for corruption (irrespective of whether this is a fair representation of either the South African Police Service or local Metro police departments). Of course PigSpotter also has a substantial appeal to motorists who flout traffic laws and look for opportunities to avoid being caught and brought to account. This is also where the conflict with local law enforcement comes into play.

Metro police are fuming and believe PigSpotter is acting illegally. There is a basis for this argument. The National Land Transport Act of 2009, for example, regards a person as having committed an offence if –

.. the person wilfully obstructs or hinders an authorised officer who is discharging his or her duties …

I haven’t reviewed transporation legislation in much detail but I am sure there are similar provisions in other legislation at both national and local levels which would regard similar conduct as constituting a criminal offence. On the other side, there are freedom of expression considerations which come into the mix. The right to freedom of expression provides as follows:

16 Freedom of expression

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes-

(a) freedom of the press and other media;

(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;

(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and

(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to-

(a) propaganda for war;

(b) incitement of imminent violence; or

(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

This isn’t the end of the matter though. Section 36 of the Bill of Rights is titled “Limitation of Rights” and it provides as follows:

36 Limitation of rights

(1) The rights in the Bill of Rights may be limited only in terms of law of general
application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and
democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all
relevant factors, including-

(a) the nature of the right;
(b) the importance of the purpose of the limitation;
(c) the nature and extent of the limitation;
(d) the relation between the limitation and its purpose; and
(e) less restrictive means to achieve the purpose.
(2) Except as provided in subsection (1) or in any other provision of the Constitution, no
law may limit any right entrenched in the Bill of Rights.

As you can see, rights in the Bill of Rights are not absolute and there are often more important considerations which justify limitations of these rights. In this case PigSpotter’s right to express himself through tweets about police road blocks and traps would be weighed up against the importance of curbing traffic offences, many of which endanger other motorists’ or pedestrians’ personal safety. I can see a compelling argument for the limitation of PigSpotter’s right to tweet about these measures when contrasted with public safety considerations.

One perspective on PigSpotter’s tweets is that they alert motorists to speed traps and road blocks and cause more motorists to drive more carefully, armed with the knowledge that the police are nearby. This has some value and is comparable to the effect of visible traffic cameras on the side of the roads – motorists slow down when they see them. The other perspective is that motorists alerted to police presences will take alternative routes and drive recklessly on unmonitored routes. A drunk driver who would have otherwise been caught by the Metro police before harming anyone may take an alternative route and kill someone.

Metro Stops Bikers In Their Tracks

So what can be done? Law enforcement faces a challenge here. PigSpotter is using Twitter to publish his warnings and it falls to law enforcement officials to request information about PigSpotter from Twitter. The idea would presumably be for law enforcement officials to request PigSpotter’s personal information which he disclosed when creating his account with Twitter. Twitter caters for this in its privacy policy and cautions as follows:

Law and Harm: We may disclose your information if we believe that it is reasonably necessary to comply with a law, regulation or legal request; to protect the safety of any person; to address fraud, security or technical issues; or to protect Twitter’s rights or property.

The challenge, of course, is that PigSpotter may not have disclosed any useful personal information when he created his account and even if law enforcement officials can persuade Twitter to hand over his personal information, it may not be enough to help identify and hold PigSpotter accountable for his tweets.

So law enforcement is back to where they started and absent other means to identify PigSpotter, he may be able to continue tweeting and potentially creating opportunities for traffic offences and related injuries and deaths. The solution may be in PigSpotter’s followers’ hands (6 228 as I type this). PigSpotter’s influence depends largely on his following. If his followers recognise the risk created by his tweets, perhaps they should simply not follow him or republish his tweets? That would probably be a next best solution for local law enforcement and quite possibly not a likely scenario. As I mentioned above, PigSpotter is popular with disaffected motorists. PigSpotter may be stopped but another tweeter could pop up in a matter of minutes. Taking it a few steps further, the community could co-ordinate their efforts and create large and distributed warning networks which would be even more difficult for law enforcement to regulate.

Perhaps a more sustainable solution is for local law enforcement to focus their efforts on winning hearts and minds instead?

6 258 followers and counting …


Photo credit: Metro Stops Bikers In Their Tracks by Aquila – licensed CC BY NC 2.0

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