The law of Panama is based on civil law with characters from Spanish legal tradition and Roman laws. For the primary several years of its existence, Panamanian law depended upon the legal code inherited from Colombia.
The first Panamanian codes, promulgated in 1917, were patterned upon those of Colombia and other Latin American states that had earlier split away from the Spanish Empire. Therefore, Panama’s legal heritage incorporated elements from Spain and its colonies.
Multiple features of Anglo-American law have also been accepted in Panama. Habeas corpus, a feature of Anglo-American legal procedure that is not seen in many Latin American codes, has been constitutionally guaranteed in Panama. Judicial precedent, another Anglo-American practice, has also made some headway. Judges and magistrates usually have had little leeway in matters of procedure, delays, and degrees of guilt.
In addition to the stipulations of “free, prompt, and uninterrupted” administration of justice and the establishment of the Public Ministry, the Constitution has various other statements about the application of laws, the treatment of citizens under the law, and the handling of prisoners. Article 21 guarantees freedom from arbitrary arrest, and Article 22 provides for habeas corpus. Article 29 forbids the death penalty.
Article 42 provides that “In criminal matters, a law favorable to the accused always has priority and retro-activity, even though the judgment may have become final.” Article 163 gives the president power to grant pardons for political offenses, to reduce sentences, and to grant parole. Article 187 states that a person convicted of an offense against public order may not hold any judicial office in the future. Article 197 institutes trial by jury.
Under a section of the Constitution headed “Individual and Social Rights and Duties,” private citizens are assured that they can be prosecuted by government authorities only for violations of the Constitution or the law. The procedure for arrests is also described, stating that arrests may result from response to complaints made to the police or from direct action on the part of police or DENI agents at the scene of the crime or disturbance.
The efficacy of citizen’s arrest is recognized: “An offender surprised flagrante delicto may be apprehended by any person and must be delivered immediately to the authorities.” No person may be held for more than twenty-four hours by the police without being brought before competent authority or being charged with an offense. The Constitution forbids arrest or detention for violation of purely civil obligations or for debts.
During the course of an investigation, the accused and all witnesses are questioned, the latter under oath. The Constitution guarantees that no accused person may be forced to incriminate himself or herself, and the authorities are forbidden to force testimony from any close relative, whether related by blood or marriage, that is, “within the fourth degree of consanguinity or the second degree of affinity.”
Investigators may enter a person’s home only with consent or a written order (search warrant) from a competent authority or to assist victims of crime or natural disaster. In general, all testimony must be presented in written form and be signed by investigators, accused, and witnesses. If a case warrants prosecution, it is referred to the appropriate court. Although bail is permissible in some cases, it is a privilege subject to many restrictions and may be denied at the request of the prosecutor if a judge concurs.