By Edward Cody
Saturday, July 31, 2010; A08
PARIS -- France's highest constitutional court Friday ordered that French police be stripped of their power to arrest ordinary suspects and interrogate them for 48 hours without bringing charges or reading them their rights.
The landmark decision, issued by the Constitutional Council, seemed to herald the end of an ancient but widely criticized practice that defense lawyers and rights advocates have long denounced as an invitation to abuse by police officers seeking to browbeat suspects into confessing.
In focusing on suspects' rights, the council was bucking a hard-line anti-crime trend set by President Nicolas Sarkozy, a security-minded conservative who repeatedly has urged a tough approach to law enforcement. Hours before the ruling was announced, for instance, Sarkozy called for broadening minimum sentences and stripping nationalized immigrants of their citizenship if they are convicted of attacking a police officer or government official.
Under Sarkozy's leadership, first as interior minister and since 2007 as president, the number of people taken into custody and questioned without charges has exploded. According to a Justice Ministry tally, the number rose from 336,718 in 2001 to about 790,000 in 2009.
As a result, holding people for 48 hours without bringing formal charges has become "banal," the council complained. Increasingly, it noted, suspects are being judged on the basis of evidence gathered during such forced interrogation, rather than during a broader investigation that would rely more heavily on witnesses and physical proof.
The National Bar Council has waged a campaign in recent months to gain greater access for defense lawyers during interrogation, suggesting France should institute guarantees similar to those of its European neighbors. Although that issue was not directly addressed in Friday's ruling, the head of the Paris bar, Christian Charriere-Bournazel, told reporters he was very satisfied.
"The Constitutional Council has just reminded us of our heritage, that of human rights, of the guarantees due to people in a democratic country," he said.
In response to the lawyers' protests, the Justice Ministry pledged recently to review its procedures and consider whether to amend the law. But it warned that making sure poor suspects had lawyers would cost about $120 million a year.
As it stands, the law grants suspects only limited contact with their defense lawyers during the 48-hour interrogation period, sometimes reducing them to being provided clean underwear and toothpaste rather than legal advice. As the council's ruling noted, police also have no obligation to notify suspects of the right to remain silent or to have a lawyer.
The council said police should retain their right to question people without bringing charges if they are suspected of exceptional threats, such as terrorism, drug smuggling or organized crime. Under French procedure, the interrogation of terrorism suspects can -- and frequently does -- continue for days without charges. That "remains a measure of constraint necessary for certain operations," the council declared.
But for ordinary suspects, it said, the practice of a 24-hour arrest without charges, renewable for a second 24 hours, violates rights protections that became constitutional law as early as the French Revolution in 1789.
In response, Prime Minister François Fillon pledged that the government will "take the necessary legislative steps" to bring the law into conformity with the constitution and forward its proposals to the parliament in the coming weeks, presumably after summer holidays.
The council gave the government until next July to draw up new rules to take account of the ruling. It did not specify how the new rules should be cast, saying only that current practice violates the constitution's human rights provisions.