Survival Guide to Police Custody in France - Episode 1: Know your rights

February 23, 2024

Author: Alice Ouaknine

6 mn - read time

What is a “garde à vue” ?

The French “garde à vue” is a custodial measure implemented on the grounds that there are one or more reasons to believe that a person has committed, or attempted to commit, an offence punishable by imprisonment.

From the outset of police custody, the detainee is informed of several rights:

Right to be assisted by an interpreter

If the detainee does not understand French, he or she must be informed of his or her rights by an interpreter, in a language he or she understands.

The interpreter must be notified as soon as possible. In the meantime, the detainee must be given a written form for immediate information.

The notification of the detainee’s rights may be made by telephone.

If the detainee has asked for an interpreter, he or she should not be asked to sign any document, or to participate in any interview, without an interpreter.

Right to notify the consular authorities

If the detainee is of foreign nationality, he or she may contact the consular authorities of his or her country.

He or she should however know that the embassy only ensures that he or she is not being mistreated because of his or her nationality.

As long as the detainee is being given the same rights as a French national in the same scenario, The Embassy will not intervene on his or her behalf.

Right to be informed of the purpose, nature and duration of the detention

The detainee has the right to be informed of the purpose of the police custody, the exact legal qualification of the criminal offense he or she is suspected to have committed, as well as the presumed date and place of commission of the offense.

The detainee also has the right to be informed of the duration of the police custody.

To read more about this right, consult the Survival Guide to Police Custody in France - Episode 2: Understand why you're here.

Right to be assisted by a lawyer

The detainee may be assisted by a chosen lawyer or, failing that, by a public defender.

Anyone in police custody is strongly advised to avail oneself of this right.

Even if his or her personal lawyer is not available or cannot travel to France, a public defender must be requested.

Right to notify a relative and your employer

The detainee can notify a close relative, listed by law: a person with whom he or she usually lives, his or her direct relatives, a brother or sister.

He or she also has the right to notify his employer.

Be careful: these two rights are sometimes combined; however, the detainee can notify both these persons, and he or she cannot be asked to choose between the two.

Right to remain silent

The detainee must be informed of his or her right, during police interviews and after having declared his identity, to answer the questions asked by the police officers or to remain silent.

This right is fundamental as it is part of the privilege against self-incrimination, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Right to be examined by a doctor

The detainee can ask to be examined by a doctor designated by the public prosecutor or the police officer in charge.

Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the doctor must be notified within three hours of the person's request.

The examination most frequently takes place at the police station where the detainee is being kept in custody.

Unless the doctor decides otherwise, the medical examination must be carried out out of sight and hearing, to ensure dignity and professional secrecy.

The medical examination is used to determine whether the person's state of health is compatible with police custody.

In the event of incompatibility, custody must be lifted as soon as possible.

In practice:

Exercise your rights

Don't be fooled into thinking that the police custody will go "faster" if you don't see a doctor, ask for an interpreter, or call a lawyer.

Carefully read the report notifying your rights

Be sure to read the report notifying your rights before signing it: this is where the rights you have requested will be recorded.

If there is an error on the notification report, and one of the rights you have requested does not appear, ask for it to be amended and/or do not sign it.

Ask to speak with your relative

Police officers often simply call the relatives in question themselves, without giving the detainee the opportunity to speak to them directly.

However, the detainee can explicitly ask to communicate directly with his or her relative, subject to the police officer's agreement, in a telephone conversation lasting no more than 30 minutes and taking place under his or her supervision.

Ask to be examined by a doctor

Requesting a doctor's visit is advised, even for someone in good health: it enables the detainee to take a "break" from the often-lengthy time spent in police custody, and to get out of the cell for a few moments.

If in doubt, ask for an interpreter

It is advisable to ask for an interpreter if you understand French approximately but are not completely fluent.

Indeed, legal terms or technicalities may be used during the various stages of police custody, and you need to ensure that you understand everything perfectly.

The police officers are not interpreters and must not translate the acts for you.