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What the law says about driving over criminals in South Africa

A recent video that went viral on social media in South Africa has sparked a debate about whether or not a driver is justified in hitting criminals with their car following an attempted theft or hijacking.

The video shows a Durban driver, who had their handbag stolen while stopped at a boom gate, chase after one of the suspects fleeing on foot in their car before hitting the criminal and sending him flying into the road.

An interview on 702 brought on a legal analyst, Mpumelelo Zikalala, to discuss the ramifications of such an event, and whether or not the driver may actually be legally responsible for any actions taken.

Legal concerns

Zikalala explained that “the law is quite strict on this one” in that a person can only use force to repel a threat or an imminent threat. If the perpetrator is running away, they no longer pose a threat and individuals are no longer allowed to use force.

He advised that people be very careful in exercising their judgment in a situation like this because of how “the tables can turn” – meaning the victim may actually become the perpetrator in an incident.

However, he also explained that context is very important in deciding whether or not a party’s actions were justified. In something like a car theft or hijacking case, the driver is likely to panic and may flee, running over one of the robbers in the process.

If the driver really wanted to inflict bodily harm on the thief, they could have turned around and hit them again, he said.

The question was then raised as to whether or not the individual who was run over could take the driver to court for something like assault or attempted murder.

This is possible, though Zikalala did mention that, in many cases, the run-over person may be reluctant to engage with the criminal justice system in the first place.

If the driver claims that their only intention was to flee and that they had no intention of hurting the individual, they should not be found guilty by a court.

“On that basis, you are not free because the magistrate is feeling sorry for you, you are free because all the elements have been proved, one of them being intention,” said the legal analyst.

Crucially, South African law does not allow a person to commit a crime in retaliation to someone else who is committing a crime.

Zikalala referred to a case earlier this year where a homeowner severely injured someone who broke into their property, and the police ended up opening a case against the homeowner because their actions occurred after they were no longer in immediate danger.

The incident

The viral video was captured on multiple CCTV cameras and shows a Toyota Tazz pulling up to a mall exit barrier to insert a parking ticket, whereupon two suspects approach the car from opposite sides and go for the driver’s door.

The suspects managed to open the driver’s door and steal the owner’s handbag before running off. One of the suspects also tries to open the front passenger door but is nearly run over by the car queued behind the Tazz as the driver attempts to help the victim.

One of the suspects gets into a waiting Toyota Etios sedan and drives off, while the other suspect runs away on foot. The driver of the Tazz then runs through the barrier and chases down the robber, colliding with him outside a petrol station and even driving over the curb while the suspect is launched into the nearby street.

All of this took place in broad daylight while a police vehicle was in the petrol station.

Reactions to the video on social media have been largely positive, with many people praising the driver’s actions and even stating that they would have done the same thing had they been in that position.

Some commenters have even expressed a desire to pay for the damages that the individual’s car may have sustained in hitting the barrier and the robber, while others have voiced their support and are even offering to contribute to any legal fees if the driver is ever forced to go to court.

While it is naturally difficult to tell which comments are genuine and which are simply from people having a laugh on social media, it illustrates an increasingly widespread sentiment from South Africans who are tired of the country’s increasingly brazen criminal activities.

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