19th Feb 2019

Brussels wants US-style 'Miranda rights' across Europe

  • When Europeans are arrested, they should have their rights made known to them in "simple, everyday language," believes the commission (Photo: Karim Rezk)

We have all watched American police or legal dramas - whether in the original version or dubbed or subtitled - and we are all familiar with and could probably recite the warning a police officer gives to a suspect as he is being handcuffed.

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law," the cop says to the villain. "You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"

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Now here in Europe, we may soon have a similar, but pan-European, practice.

On Tuesday, the European Commission proposed that a common warning about an equivalent set of rights, but in written form in equally simple language - and in the suspect's own tongue - be adopted across Europe.

These words we are so familiar with from American television are "Miranda Rights", or, more correctly, a ‘Miranda warning', after the court ruling that established the practice. Police are required to repeat them to suspects in custody in order to inform them of their constitutional rights before criminal proceedings can begin.

But in Europe, with 27 countries, different legal systems and multitude of languages, the situation is more complicated and the commission is worried that this could lead to miscarriages of justice - and also result in unnecessary and expensive appeals.

"[Imagine] a German tourist gets arrested after a bar brawl in Italy. He does not speak the language. As a result, he does not understand why he is being held and what the charge is," the commission said in its statement announcing the new proposal.

In some member states, suspects only receive spoken information about their procedural rights, while elsewhere individuals are given written documents, but in complex legal language - and sometimes not unless explicitly demanded.

"Individuals cannot fully exercise their defence rights unless they know what they are. Knowing what your rights are and what you are accused of is crucial for a fair trial," said fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding.

"Dealing with the law can be an intimidating process and we cannot expect people to demand respect from the authorities for their procedural rights when they don't know what those rights are."

In response, the commission is proposing that anyone arrested anywhere in the EU from now on should be immediately informed in writing with a "Letter of Rights" listing their basic rights during criminal proceedings in simple, everyday language. It will be given to suspects upon arrest in all cases, whether asked for or not, and must be translated if necessary.

Such letters do exist in some EU countries already - a total of 12, with Germany and the Netherlands introducing such a system earlier this year. But Brussels wants this extended across Europe. Countries will be free to choose their own wording, but the commission has also offered a model of the kind of thing they would like to see in 22 languages.

"It makes good TV, but it also serves a very serious purpose: it gives people a chance to know and assert their rights. It gives them confidence that justice will be served, wherever they are in Europe," said the commissioner.

The commission first proposed such a letter of rights in 2004, but the proposal stalled as part of a broader package of reforms that met with resistance from the member states.

However, in November last year, they asked the commission to come up with a new package of measures assuring suspects of their rights in criminal proceedings, but in a "step-by-step" fashion over the next few years, to allow for a greater likelihood that they would be approved and also to build up mutual trust between national justice authorities, still quite suspicious of each other's legal systems and traditions.

The EU ‘Miranda Letter' is actually the second such proposed measure in this overall package. The first, given political backing by the member states and the European Parliament in March, gives suspects the right to translation and interpretation.

This move too must yet be approved by EU countries and the parliament.

Next year, the commission will propose a law giving individuals a right to a lawyer and another offering the right to speak with relatives, employers and their embassy.

The member states are likely to give the proposal their backing. An EU diplomat told EUobserver that he "expected the idea to meet with support from the Council, but of course the devil is in the detail."

"It sounds like a TV police drama, but soon it will be reality throughout the European Union," the commission said.

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