Epic court ruling: Undercover cops cannot be believed because the police are looking after PiS’s interests
by Piotr Żytnicki The courts have believed police officers uncritically for years, but that may change. In Poznań, a student who was convicted after the Women’s Strike solely on the basis of the testimony of two undercover cops was acquitted. Not many court justifications have the chance of going down in history – […]
by Piotr Żytnicki
The courts have believed police officers uncritically for years, but that may change. In Poznań, a student who was convicted after the Women’s Strike solely on the basis of the testimony of two undercover cops was acquitted.
Not many court justifications have the chance of going down in history – they have to be made precisely at the right time, address fundamental issues and prove courage. Judge Sławomir Jęksa of the Regional Court in Poznań announced such a justification on Wednesday, 15 December.
Police detained a student because he was different
The case is only seemingly trivial. The court of ther first instance sentenced Wiktor Joachimkowski, a 20-year-old political science student, to six months of community service. It relied solely on the testimony of two police officers.
Wiktor took part in the Women’s Strike protests against the restriction of the abortion law in Poland in October 2020. He went to the cathedral in Poznań together with the demonstrators because the Church supported the change in the law. The protest was peaceful, although, at one point, a group of masked men threw stones at the police officers. The police did not detain them. The undercover cops only went for Wiktor, who stood out with his blond hair and was not covering his face.
He was convicted in the first instance of participating in an illegal, aggressive rally, all the participants of which attacked the police together. The undercover officers claimed that Wiktor was also alleged to have thrown a stone. Judge Joanna Knobel acknowledged this as an act of hooliganism.
The student pleaded not guilty. His friends claimed that, when stones were being thrown at the police officers, he was standing beside them and was not throwing anything. Judge Knobel ignored these testimonies and believed the undercover cops.
The court defends a legal assembly
Judge Sławomir Jęksa examined the appeal filed by Wiktor’s defence attorney. He pulled the judgment in the first instance to pieces on Wednesday.
He started with the legal analysis. He emphasised that throwing stones cannot be tolerated, as it is a dangerous phenomenon, but neither can collective liability. According to the judge, Wiktor was taking part in a legal demonstration, and the fact that several people threw stones does not make it an illegal gathering. However, the court of the first instance equated these two matters.
According to Jęksa, there is no way of proving that several thousand people were in collusion with a group of aggressors. Even joint chanting of slogans does not prove a common intention to attack police officers. Therefore, every person’s act should be assessed individually.
Wiktor could therefore be held liable not for participating in an illegal gathering, but for actively assaulting police officers. But it would first need to be proved that he actually threw a stone at them.
Judge Jęksa: Our state is in a major crisis
The courts in Poland uncritically believed the testimony of police officers for years. One argument was often repeated: the police officers do not know the defendant, so they have no interest in incriminating him with their testimony. When it was one word against another, the civilian was always on the losing side.
Judge Sławomir Jęksa held that the court of the first instance, which sentenced Wiktor, was also lacking criticism.
‘Our state is in a major rule of law crisis. The police are supposed to uphold the legal order, but we know that, quite frequently, they confuse upholding the rule of law with upholding the interests of the ruling party,’ said Jęksa. And he recalled that, during the protests, the police officers were blocking off the demonstrators in ‘rings’ and unlawfully detaining them.
‘Non-uniformed officers were also beating women with batons. The police themselves were breaking the law,’ said Jęksa. And added: ‘Reliance on the testimony of two police officers, referred to as undercover cops, breaches the rules of correct reasoning. Undercover cops have been performing various, even special tasks in recent years. Likewise, provocations cannot be ruled out. It may be unfair to the two police officers testifying in this case, but in view of what is happening in Poland, care must be taken when assessing the testimony of police officers. It cannot be accepted without verification.
The court does not believe the undercover cops
Judge Sławomir Jęksa pointed out that the undercover cops had strangely changed their testimony. In the heat of the moment, several hours after the protest, they testified that Wiktor was in a group, whose members started throwing stones. Therefore, they did not specify that he had thrown stones personally. They only did so several months later, when they testified in court.
‘Why did they not state this in their first testimony? After all, they should have remembered this better immediately after the incident,’ said Judge Jęksa. And added: ‘The fact that, after several months, the police officers surprisingly changed their testimony in unison does not add to their credibility.
According to the court, the credibility of the police officers was undeniably undermined by the testimony of Wiktor’s friends. They were standing beside him when the stones were flying. Judge Jęksa said that he believed these testimonies, while there were too many doubts in the case to convict the student. And that is why he is acquitting him.
Could this verdict set a new standard for assessing the testimony of police officers in similar cases? Poland does not have common law. This is only a judgment in this particular case and is in no way binding on other courts. However, any citizen charged solely on the basis of a police officer’s testimony can refer to this judgment.
Judge Jęksa in the sights of the authorities
This is not the first time that Judge Slawomir Jęksa criticised PiS’s breach of the rule of law. He already has disciplinary problems because, in a justification of a sentence he passed, he criticised PiS’s breach of the rule of law in Poland. He acquitted Joanna Jaskowiak, a notary public, the former wife of the mayor of Poznań, in September 2018, who was convicted in the first instance. The police prosecuted her for indecent words at a demonstration. This is because, while commenting on the PiS government, Jaskowiak said that she was ‘fucked off’.
‘Children probably heard these words, which is obviously a bad thing, but a much worse thing is what is happening in Poland now,’ Jęksa said in his justification.
He acknowledged that, in this situation, Joanna Jaśkowiak’s act was socially damaging, whereas her words ‘were perhaps necessary’. TVP’s news programme, ‘Wiadomości’, considered this justification to be ‘an example of the political involvement of certain judges’. Jan Kanthak, then a representative of the Ministry of Justice, spoke of ‘an absurdity that should never have taken place’. Meanwhile, the disciplinary commissioner, Przemyslaw Radzik, acknowledged that Jęksa had breached the principle of being apolitical and opened disciplinary proceedings against him – which, after all, have not ended to this day.
We need courts of two instances in a democracy
Wiktor Joachimkowski was being defended pro bono by Mateusz Bogacz, a young attorney-at-law from Poznań. In his closing speech he emphasised that the verdict in the first instance convicting his client destroyed the confidence of the citizens in the state: ‘The state, which claims to be democratic, is using methods from the communist regime: it raises imaginary allegations and uses officers as witnesses. The testimony of the police officers is not credible. It was changed to save the indictment. A person was chosen who could easily be caught. Is this how the police should operate?
Judge Jęksa’s justification impressed the lawyer. ‘It proves that we need a democracy which has courts of the second instance, which can review verdicts,’ said Attorney Bogacz.
Wiktor was simultaneously fighting for compensation for wrongful detention. The police kept him at the police station for over a dozen hours. The court awarded him PLN 3,000 on Wednesday 15 December.
The article was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 15 December 2021. Translated by Roman Wojtasz