Plea bargains ‘could warp German justice’

Bargains struck in court between judges and lawyers to swap confessions for a significantly shorter sentence could be warping Germany's justice system, the Constitutional Court says.

Plea bargains 'could warp German justice'
Photo: DPA

The German system has a duty to uncover all the facts of a case in an inquisitorial rather than adversarial format – the judges are involved with both sets of lawyers in trying to figure out what happened, rather than acting as a referee between two opposing sides.

This concept could be threatened by a 2009 law which regulates confessions bargains, Andreas Voßkuhle, president of the Constitutional Court, said this week. Others fear such deals could pressure suspects into false confessions.

The court’s doubts, discussed in a preliminary negotiation on Wednesday, were sparked by a new study which found that judges were not keeping to the rules set out in the “deal”, but were continuing to make informal bargains with state prosecutors and defence lawyers.

The general rule of thumb is that the accused can have his or her sentence cut by a third if they confess, a reduction that many critics see as a temptation that could pervert justice.

The Constitutional Court is currently deliberating three separate constitutional complaints against verdicts based on such deals. The plaintiffs say their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves had been violated by the bargains.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, speaking at the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, floated possible alterations to the 2009 law in response to the judge’s concerns. She said that the law had been conceived to regulate the “wilderness” of such deals that had existed before. The law had been passed specifically to limit the number of false confessions.

She acknowledged that the results of the study, carried out by Düsseldorf law professor Karsten Altenhain, were “frightening” and must be addressed by lawmakers.

Altenhain questioned around 330 judges, state prosecutors, and defence lawyers in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia as part of his study, which was conducted specifically for the Constitutional Court.

More than half of the defence lawyers described cases where suspects gave confessions that were probably false in order to avoid a heavy sentence. Judges, meanwhile, readily made the deals to shorten complicated trials, the study found.

Klaus Tolksdorf, president of the Federal Court of Justice (BGH), said the study uncovered a “structural problem” in Germany’s criminal prosecution system. “In principle, consensus and criminal law cannot co-exist,” he said.

Germany’s Attorney General Harald Range spoke of a “collective sense of unease” among legal professionals about confession deals.

The Local/DAPD/bk

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Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

A driver in Passau has been hit with a €5,000 fine because he was caught by traffic police giving the middle finger.

Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

The district court of Passau sentenced the 53-year-old motorist to the fine after he was caught making the rude gesture in the direction of the speedometer last August on the A3 near the Donautal Ost service area, reported German media. 

The man was not caught speeding, however. According to traffic police who were in the speed camera vehicle at the time, another driver who had overtaken the 53-year-old was over the speed limit. 

When analysing the photo, the officers discovered the slower driver’s middle finger gesture and filed a criminal complaint.

The driver initially filed an objection against a penalty order, and the case dragged on for several months. However, he then accepted the complaint. He was sentenced to 50 ‘unit fines’ of €100 on two counts of insulting behaviour, amounting to €5,000.

READ ALSO: The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around

In a letter to police, the man said he regretted the incident and apologised. 

Police said it was “not a petty offence”, and that the sentence could have been “even more drastic”.

People who give insults while driving can face a prison sentences of up to a year.

“Depending on the nature and manner of the incident or in the case of persons with a previous conviction, even a custodial sentence without parole may be considered for an insult,” police in Passau said. 

What does the law say?

Showing the middle finger to another road user in road traffic is an offence in Germany under Section 185 of the Criminal Code (StGB). It’s punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine.

People can file a complaint if someone shows them the middle finger in road traffic, but it usually only has a chance of success if witnesses can prove that it happened.

As well as the middle finger, it can also be an offence to verbally insult someone. 

READ ALSO: The German road signs that confuse foreigners