The Justice Initiative Supports French Youth in Complaint Against Wrongful Lockdown Fines
PARIS—Over thirty teenagers and young adults from the French working-class district of Essonne are challenging penalties they received during the Spring 2020 coronavirus lockdown for violating a stay-at-home order, claiming that the fines are unlawful, inappropriate, and discriminatory. The 32 youth from Épinay-sous-Sénart, all from minority groups, seek an independent and impartial investigation into the wrongful basis for the fines, and have called for them to be cancelled. From March 17, 2020, to June 20, 2020, these 32 young people received over 150 fines totaling more than €18,000. With surcharges, this amount now exceeds €50,000.
The claimants have engaged legal counsel to formally dispute the fines with local law enforcement and the public prosecutor, and these processes remain ongoing. In April 2021, they also submitted a case before France’s human rights ombudsman, requesting that she examines the illegal and discriminatory practices of the police.
According to the young people involved, these fines are unlawful because they were identified only through CCTV footage. As a result, the claimants were not asked for proper ID, and did not have the opportunity to provide legitimate explanations for their presence in those public spaces. The fine notices also contain multiple errors, including misspelled names, incorrect addresses, and mistaken identities. The public prosecutor of Evry expressed concern with these policing procedures, noting, in a letter sent to the mayors of Essonne on May 5, 2020, that "the serving procedure of the fines, which was carried out remotely, at times successively and without the culprits being fully aware of them, did not respect the law."
Thirty-one of the 32 people charged are young men, with an average age of 25 years, and are perceived to be Black or Arab. Racial discrimination, they allege, forms the basis for the penalties.
"These abusive fines were levied in the context of well-documented, discriminatory police practices that have been denounced by many, including the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights, an independent body mandated to monitor Human Rights in France," said Maïté De Rue, a senior legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is supporting the complaint with the human rights ombudsperson. "Police brutality and racial discrimination by the police are part of a phenomenon that has persisted in France for many years."
The claimants have tried to challenge the fines for months without success in a process that they believe amounts to administrative and judicial harassment. Because authorities have rejected their evidence, claimants have been left with little recourse. The review and appeals process for penalty notices makes mistakes difficult to correct and is heavily weighted against those who are fined. For example, the penalty notices are processed through a simplified legal procedure resulting in convictions without a hearing, a trial, or an opportunity to be defended by a lawyer.
The challenged penalties are not only discriminatory and violative of due process; they also can push young people and families into further economic precarity, forcing some youth to contend with debts of several thousand euros. The fines also impose barriers for young people just entering the working world. For example, one young person fined in Essonne was refused a work permit in the public sector due to the disputed penalties. Additionally, these fines have a heavy psychological impact, affecting their sense of belonging within France. As a young resident of Épinay-sous-Sénart stated: "Whatever we do, even if we dispute these fines, at the end of the day we still have to pay up, with no other choice. It’s a horrendous ordeal."
According lawyer Clara Gandin, who is supporting the youth in disputing these fines: “These abusive policing practices have no place in the rule of law. Local law enforcement, the public prosecutor of Evry, and the public treasury must immediately stop demanding the payment of these illegal fines.”
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