How might the authorities use and abuse the law to harass somebody? Imposing fines for minor offences is an easy way. Especially, if the person involved is underprivileged, therefore has little capability to enforce his rights.
The subject of our video lives in a small town in Borsod County, where a local police officer kept bullying him for 3 years. Thanks to our mediation and the competent police chief, officer Csabi doesn’t fine our client anymore; his groundless harassment has been stopped.
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Józsi is in his late thirties, he has a family, a peaceful life and many friends. He’s been living with his partner for years in great poverty in a village, in Borsod County, of approximately 1600 inhabitants. He built a small workroom from scratch in the front yard of their house and has made a living for years by repairing bicycles. However, a couple of years ago he had to say goodbye to his quiet life, when Csabi, the police officer serving in his village, started fining him for every step he took. In the beginning he’d get around on bicycle, and was fined again and again for related charges. Then Józsi’s bike was stolen from his yard. From then on he was fined by the patrol officer for pedestrian violations.
Lately, he was caught for not walking on the sidewalk. In our video it is visible that there isn’t a continuous or properly built sidewalk, and where there is, it’s in a very bad condition so people mostly use the road.
Józsi was also fined for not using the pedestrian crossing. The truth is, there are no pedestrian crossings in the village at all.
Of course, on some occasions the fines had legal grounds, as Józsi did commit offences, so he didn’t dispute his responsibilities. Yet in these cases the fines were exaggerated and out of proportion. These abuses continued despite the fact that the law specifically states what the scale of the fine should be determined in accordance with the seriousness of the offence. Also, it requires that the offender’s personal circumstances be taken into consideration if the authorities have information regarding such information. In most of these cases the officer fined Józsi for tens of thousands of forints at a time, which considering the nature of his offences and his financial background were obviously disproportionate.
After a while Józsi became anxious to leave his house, because he knew that if officer Csabi saw him, it would definitely cost him thousands of forints.
In many villages in Borsod County the local police officer doesn’t just single out one individual, but often bullies the whole Roma community.
These communities on the periphery of society have little capability of enforcing and protecting their rights due to their lack of information and for the authorities and courts a Roma’s claims usually don’t carry great weight against a police officer’s. Consequently, the fined persons have no means of protecting themselves from the abuses of the police.
Józsi turned to the Roma Program of the HCLU for help. We gave legal advice in several cases and in some we also provided legal representation.
In many cases the court upheld its decision to determine the fines, because it did not accept our argument that a fine which is part of a recurring practice could be harassment and illegitimate. In our video Józsi asks the question: ‘Other people walk on the side of the road as well. Why are they not fined?’ A cyclist interviewed by our colleague told us that he has never been stopped in this village by a policeman in his life, although he regularly rides a bike and drives a car as well.
In a case when Józsi was fined for walking on the road, we managed to mitigate his 21 000 HUF fine and he was let off with a warning. The court admitted that considering the nature of the offence the aim of the penalty could be achieved without the use of a fine. Earlier, Józsi spent weeks in jailwhen he was unable to pay the accumulated fines.
Unfortunately, representing him before the court wasn’t enough, fining for minor offences continued unabated. We had to find a solution that attracted the attention of the authorities to these persistent, abusive and prejudiced actions of the police. This summer the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in co-operation with the Roma Program of the HCLU organised a consultative panel with the participation of the police and the civilians of Miskolc. The panel’s objective was to enable Roma activists in charge of the TASZPONTs (legal support stations), who represent the Roma communities in their own villages, to have a discussion with the police chiefs about their comments, suggestions and objections regarding police work. The police leaders asked us to consistenly let them know about the particular issues at hand. In Józsi’s case we turned to the local police chief, who understood why we consider the practices of officer Csabi unlawful. Thanks to this, Józsi has not been unfairly fined since.