Sometimes unknown to the general public, the immediate appearance, also called CI in the jargon, is nevertheless an important tool of the French judicial system. Supposed to provide a rapid criminal response to minor offences, it is however often criticized by lawyers who see in it the expression of “expeditious” justice.
They are the instrument of daily justice. In French courts, dozens of defendants are tried every day in immediate appearance. Thousands of cases are handled this way every year. In 2016, according to theInternational Observatory of Prisons (OIP), 49 cases were judged in this way: cases of theft, trafficking, assault or even traffic offences, all offenses for which this procedure can be initiated.
Quick or hasty justice?
It consists in rapidly bringing before a court persons placed in police custody for such offences. Provided, however, that the facts of which he is accused are clear and simple, and do not require a thorough police investigation. “It concerns facts for which there is little doubt, for example flagrante delicto”, explains Virginie Duval, honorary president of the Union of magistrates at the microphone of France Inter.
The trial then takes place a few days or even a few hours after the crime. 70% of cases directed to immediate appearance are judged within 4 days of the end of the defendant's custody. 29% are on the same day. "It's a justice that goes faster," explains Virginie Duval. This speed makes it an exception within a French judicial system much criticized for its slowness. Indeed, it took on average 8 months in 2018 for a case to reach a judgment in the criminal court. A period that could go up to three and a half years for a case under investigation.
However, this speed is regularly criticized by the legal community. They denounce an expeditious justice that leaves little room for the defense and the in-depth study of cases. The procedure takes place within very short deadlines which leave the lawyers little time to prepare their case. The interview with the defendant often only lasts a few minutes before the trial. “Defending someone in immediate appearance means seeing someone arrive between two gendarmes, in a box, after 24 or 48 hours of police custody”, testifies the criminal lawyer Karine Bourdier, on France Inter, “that means a lack of access to the file during these 24 or 48 hours”. However, the defendant has the possibility of postponing his judgment to a later date in order to be able to prepare his defense at greater length with his lawyer. At the risk, however, of being placed in pre-trial detention, pending his trial, which must take place 2 to 6 weeks later.
The court, made up of a judge and two assessors, takes cognizance of the case itself shortly before the start of the hearing. In large courts, several cases are dealt with at each hearing, and they can follow one another well into the night. Some are even added during the day. The time devoted to each case is very short. According to a study carried out at the Marseilles court in 2016, 29 minutes are on average devoted to the hearing of a case, including 6 minutes of the lawyer's pleadings. "People can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison by botched judgments in 20 minutes after dark", denounce lawyers Laure Heinich and Dominique Tricaud in a column published in Le Monde in 2018.
A procedure that favors prison
Offenses tried in immediate appearance are generally punishable by 6 months to 10 years in prison. Although this remains rare, the sentences handed down may however exceed this limit, particularly in the event of repeat offences.
Immediate appearance tends to favor imprisonment. Firstly, in respect of pre-trial detention. Indeed, defendants who go through this procedure do not appear free during their trial. Between the end of police custody and the start of the trial, they are therefore kept in a cell. Provisional detention in a penitentiary can also be decided if the time until the appearance proves to be longer. This may in particular be the case when there is no hearing in the day following the end of police custody (for example at the weekend), or when the defendant requests a postponement of his judgment. According to statistics from the Department of Penitentiary Administration, people awaiting trial by immediate appearance represent 54% of pre-trial detentions.
But the procedure also tends to favor prison in the penalties imposed by the court. According to lawyers Laure Heinich and Dominique Tricaud, two thirds of immediate appearances result in a prison sentence. And in many cases, this is accompanied by a warrant of committal, requiring the immediate detention of the accused. For, unlike other procedures, immediate appearance allows the application of a warrant of committal to prison sentences of less than one year. As a result, the prison sentences pronounced within the framework of this procedure are more frequently applied. For critics of immediate appearance, these statistics raise the question of fairness between legal proceedings. “Those who are prosecuted in this way are up to eight times more likely to be imprisoned than if they had been prosecuted, for identical facts, through a procedure more respectful of their rights”, denounce thus Laure Heinich and Dominique Tricaud in their gallery.
Much decried by some of the magistrates, the immediate appearance remains an essential instrument of justice. During confinement, immediate appearances were thus one of the few hearings to be maintained in the courts.