Natalya Taubina: Powers without accountability. On amendments to the law on police proposed by the government

14 May 2020

Natalya Taubina

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: ОВД-Инфо]

The government has introduced a bill to the State Duma that would amend the federal law “On the Police”. The bill gives the police the right to open vehicles, expands their options for action when cordoning areas off (for example, for rallies) and so on. Director of the Public Verdict Foundation and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize Natalya Taubina told OVD-Info about what is changing.

Some of the points in this document are minor clarifications. One of the important ones is that they change “personal search” to “personal inspection” everywhere. As far as I understand, a search is a legally regulated procedure which takes place in defined conditions. Accordingly, the accountability [for violations] of police officers during the inspection is not very clear.

The right to open vehicles is an innovation. It’s not very clear how it will be implemented in practice; does this concern suspects who are in a car, or do you need to detain someone and drive after him, possibly making use of a car that happens to be at hand? The police will not be liable for damage caused as a result of the opening. A new power has appeared, unburdened by accountability.

In general, the entire bill increases the powers and capabilities of the police to conduct official activities – to inspect people, cordon off an area for a public event – but introduces absolutely no restrictive powers in the form of penalties for abuse of authority. And the powers themselves are formulated in such general ways that it’s not always clear what they relate to – as in the case of opening a vehicle.  

The police already had the power to cordon off a crime scene, and now the power to inspect people who want to enter or exit that area is being added. It looks like it’s logical, but no accountability [for exceeding authority during the inspection] is foreseen.

Previously there were “crimes” and “offences”, but now a third term appears in the bill, completely incomprehensible to me – an “incident”. There is a right to inspect “the scene of an incident”. When we talk about crimes and offences, they are regulated by the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences. There regulations are laid out regarding what can happen and in which situations: an inspection, a search, a seizure of documents and so on. It is not clear how the validity of the actions taken by police officers during the “incident” will be assessed.

So it is that a new power is being given to the police, but it is extended beyond procedural boundaries. Thus the hands of the police are untied. If previously it was clear that, for example, a warrant was needed for a search, the search should be carried out according to certain rules, then now some “incidents” appear, within the framework of which you can do a lot. And in this bill at least, there is no explanation of what “incident” means.

There is also a rule that a police officer is not subject to prosecution for acts committed during the performance of duties assigned to the police, if they comply with the law “On the Police” and other federal laws. But the law is written in such a way that multiple interpretations are possible, so as not to wholly free police officers from accountability for actions taken in the course of carrying out their duties.

It seems that the bill describes situations that police officers often encounter, and where they have difficulties. The bill fits into the general pattern of what has been happening over the last few years, when law enforcement is being given ever more powers with the same amount of accountability, or even a reduction in accountability.

Translated by Anna Bowles

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