Image via WikipediaThe popular press has finally caught on to something that has been causing ructions among defence lawyers for some time, because the treatment of a fourteen year old girl involved in a fight at the school gates is much easier to present to the public than legal argument about the European Convention on Human Rights taking precedence over internal French law.
As Gilbert and Sullivan inform us, a policeman's lot is not a happy one, and the police - openly, because they can and do have unions - and the gendarmerie - behind closed doors because they are the army and can't have unions - are letting everyone know about it.
Why are they unhappy? Because they feel they are bearing the brunt of criticism that should, in their view, be levelled at the politicans.
The issue? The 'garde a vue'. Police custody to you and me.
Coming from the U.K., one imagines that a suspect, taken up by the police dragnet and hauled off to the cop shop for questioning, has the right to have a lawyer present from the start of things to prevent him from saying anything silly, like
'It's a fair cop, guv'
as they did in the dear old days of Dixon of Dock Green.
Personally I always thought that there was a fair bit of physical persuasion behind some of those admissions in that golden age of respect for the police, but that's by the by.
But this is France.
While the suspect has the right to let his family know where he is, and to be seen by a doctor, his lawyer can only tell him of what exactly he is accused. The lawyer cannot see his dossier and has no way of helping him to construct a defense until he gets out.
As a supect in France, in police custody, one is very very much alone against the system, and it is this which is expressly disapproved of by the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.
Defence lawyers have been kicking up for some time, complaining that the rights of suspects under the European Convention of Human Rights are not respected due to the very nature of internal French law, and a few courts are now beginning to side with them.
A lucid account of what is involved may be found in journal d'un avocat, among a plethora of other delights, including rugby, tea, and sensible advice.
Now, the case of the fourteen year old girl. She had been involved in a fight at the school gates. The next morning, she is awakened at her home by a call from the gendarmerie. A female officer gets her up and tells her she is to go to the cop shop to be questioned. She is wearing a jogging suit that she uses as pyjamas, and is refused permission to get dressed properly, only being allowed to put on a pullover. She is handcuffed and taken to the station.
It appears that it is normal practice to handcuff all suspects...exception only being made when there is a possibility that the handcuffs would slip over the hands of the younger suspects.
I have no idea of the nature of her involvement, but I do suspect that heightened attention was being paid to school gate fights after a teenager was stabbed to death in one just before this incident.
It also appears that when the current Justice minister was Minister of the Interior, there was pressure to push up the number of suspects held in police custody rather than just being interviewed at the police station - probably so that in the coming elections, the ruling UMP party could whip up support for their hard line on crime.
Before one gets all het up, it might be sobering to reflect on what might happen to the average person who receives a summons to the cop shop for what is always referred to as 'something which involves you'.
I had one of these years ago...and when I took no notice, the gendarmerie came to the house. I watched them from the attic window.
Eventually, they rang me and 'invited' me to come to see them. I asked what it was about and they replied that it was 'something which involved me'.
I declined to come and they said they would come and get me. I watched them from the attic window.
They rang again and eventually the voice at the other end of the line said it was about damage to a car in a supermarket car park. Had I been there on such and such a date?
Well, there's a guy who made a statement that you bashed into his car while reversing and didn't stop to fill out an insurance form.
The guy can go and boil his head.
No, you have to fill out the form.
Because you have to. It's the law.
It's the law if you have an accident. I haven't had an accident.
He says you did.
He can go and boil his head.
But he's made a statement. There'll be trouble if you don't come in. It's only a form for goodness' sake...the insurance companies can sort it out...
Like a fool, I did go in, I did fill out a form and copped a mighty increase in my car insurance for something I hadn't done. That, as they might say, learned me. Never co operate.
It appears that the unwary, summoned to discuss 'something which involves them' can find themselves taken to a cell, have glasses, belts, shoelaces etc., removed to prevent them from committing suicide while in police custody, can be strip searched, including body cavities, and all this at the whim - no, sorry, on the considered opinion - of a properly qualified police or gendarmerie officer. Having no idea what the police want to see him about, he has had no opportunity to discuss the question with a lawyer before arriving at the police station. where he could be held for twenty four hours, and then for another twenty four on the say so of the local procureur - the Justice Ministry's man supervising the local police.
One British chap round here found himself in chokey when, having been breathalysed - he was negative - he said 'F....ing French' as he got back in his car. Twenty four hours on the whim - no, sorry, the considered opinion - of a properly qualified gendarmerie officer.
Lawyers are kicking up on behalf of their clients.
Ther police and gendarmerie are kicking up on their own behalf because they resent being the fall guys for their political masters. If official circulars and unofficial pressure from their bosses compell them to take people into custody rather than simply interviewing them, that is what they do.
One bright spark of a policeman has come up with a real winner of an idea.
As the officers who decide on and control the 'garde a vue' have to go on a course and hold a certificate, he proposes to turn in his certificate, so that he can no longer do that part of the job. He reckons that if all the certified officers were to do this, the justice system would fall apart in very short order and compel the politicians to stop playing games.