Monday, September 23, 2013

"Innocent until proven guilty": The US versus France

Charges were later dropped.
Used under Fair Use.
There are some people who read this blog who may know the background of what is below. Please do not post any links to it. At all. This post is not about the people I'm referring to in an anonymous manner, it's about the difference between how the French and US legal systems deal with the accused.

One of the unexpected benefits of living in another country, particularly one with a legal philosophy similar to the one in your home country, is seeing how otherwise "clear-cut" ideas manifest themselves so differently. For example, reading about Freedom of Speech per country can be quite astonishing, particularly if you don't know the background of said laws.

Recently I received a very strong reminder that "presumption of innocence" in the US is a bit of a joke compared to here in France.

I know two people in the US, Bob and Charlie (not their real names). I know Bob very well and have been friends with him for a long time. I have met Charlie on more than one occasion and while I can't claim to know him, I like him and think he's an awesome person. Unfortunately, I trust both of them, and that leads me to a very complicated problem.

Recently, Bob was arrested for allegedly committing a crime against Charlie. His mugshot showed up online and a number of people in Bob's field started forwarding this mugshot, warning people about Bob. Bob, in fact, appeared to have no defenders whatsoever, though some people were defending Bob's presumption of innocence. Despite that, here are a few comments about Bob that appeared online (all paraphrased to avoid you finding them, but more or less accurate):
  • "I want everyone to know about Bob's arrest for the crime of X"
  • "We need to publicly shame Bob"
  • "We need to tell everyone about Bob so that others don't fall prey to him"
In other words, many people want to punish Bob for a crime it's not known that he committed. And worse, if you read the laws in question for the area in which this alleged crime occurs, it's clear that this is an incredibly murky area in which even reasonable people could disagree about the intent of the law and its implementation.

And now? Bob has been released, there will apparently be no court case, and his charges were listed as "disposed," meaning that no charges will be brought and the case is closed. Did Charlie refuse to press charges? Was it all a misunderstanding? Was exculpating evidence uncovered? Did something else happen? Will something else happen in the future? Who knows? So far, Bob and Charlie aren't talking.

Charlie might feel genuinely upset about this outcome. Bob might feel the same way. We have no way of knowing anything about this situation. Given the severity of the charges, both Bob and Charlie could find their careers seriously damaged or even destroyed, depending on how things move forward. Both of these people are nice people who are going through difficult times, but the situation has spiraled out of their control. Pitchforks are out, torches are lit and all I can think about are two people who face their lives being destroyed over a crime that may or may not have happened. I don't want to find out that Charlie is a victim who sees the perpetrator get away with a crime, but I also don't want to find out that Bob is innocent and had his career destroyed by a mob. In other words, I want the legal system to do its job, but it's not an easy process in the US. Thanks to the power of the mob, no one can really control what's going to happen now.

Note that I pointed out that they live in the US. That's important, because the outcome would have been different here in France. Under French law:
Toute personne suspectée ou poursuivie est présumée innocente tant que sa culpabilité n'a pas été établie. Les atteintes à sa présomption d'innocence sont prévenues, réparées et réprimées dans les conditions prévues par la loi.
That translates as:
Any suspected or accused person is presumed innocent until he is found guilty. Damage to the presumption of innocence is prevented, remedied and punished as provided by law.
"Damage to the presumption of innocence"? It means, amongst other things, French police departments don't do perp walks (a disgusting US police practice), your mugshot is not published and even in serious crimes, the French don't name suspects until a conviction, barring issues where the names have been leaked. In court cases, the police lead the accused to the courtroom via discreet entrances to prevent photographs and damage to the presumption of innocence. If you violate this presumption of innocence, it will quickly be your turn to stand in front of a judge, but they'll protect your privacy too.

Incidentally, the photo above is of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (known here in France as DSK). The French were very upset over that photo. He was accused of raping a maid, but charges were later dropped after it was found out that she repeatedly changed her story to prosecutors, was receiving suspicious, large payments to her bank account (she was a hotel maid receiving $100,000 deposits) and admitted to previously falsifying a rape claim. And that's just the beginning of many strange events that surround a very bizarre story. What makes this such a big deal? Thanks to the arrest and the publication of the perp walk photos, DSK's reputation was in tatters. He was probably going to be the next president of France.
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