Monday, November 17, 2008

My Day in Court

Last week I went to court. I wasn't in the dock, you'll be sorry to hear, but instead I was there as a witness. I realised that I'd never actually been in a court before, not even as a heartless gloater/ghoul/audience member (is there a word for people who just go and watch court cases?) so this was a vaguely exciting moment.

I had received my summons in the post telling me to be in Court room 100 at 8.30am in Miercurea Ciuc's impressive Palatul Justiţie, so I duly showed up there right on time, wandering through the empty hallways until I located room 100 (sadly not Room 101). The only people visible in the entire building were four members of the Jandarmerie (Jandarms?). I'm not entirely sure of the function of the jandarmerie - like many European countries Romania has a lot of seperate police forces who all seem to have slightly different responsibilities, but what those responsibilities are seems a bit vague to me. In this case the jandarmerie are obviously charged with policing the courthouse building. Anyway there were four of them hanging around, a bit bored, and three of them looked about 18 (though obviously the usual proviso applies that as I'm knocking on a bit these days, nearly all police-type-people look about 18). Since there was nothing to do they were pissing about a bit, pretending to throw one another off the balcony, until finally the older one told them to stop it as the bloke sitting on his own outside room 100 (that's me) was watching. Eventually he obviously gave them all permission to go and sit in the jandarm room or whatever it was since they all disappeared into the room opposite 100 and started listening to manele.

I had peeped into the courtroom to check I wasn't supposed to go in, but there were just two people in there looking stern, and anyway, there was a paper posted up which listed the 6 cases that morning and mine was number 3 so I figured I just had to wait. Occasionally an announcement came over a speaker which was in the corridor I was sitting in, but despite the fact that I was the only person in the area it was still entirely indecipherable. Partly this was because of the manele emanating from next door, but partly it was because it just sounded like there was some kind of mysterious and geographically misplaced peat bog lying inconveniently between the microphone being spoken into and the speaker transmitting the sounds.

Eventually the one remaining jandarm came over and asked me what I was waiting for and when I explained, he told me to go and wait in the court room (it quickly became apparent that whenever anyone bothered to go into the courtroom their case was just taken up, and then left again when they were done). So I sat down, listened to some bloke telling some long complicated story and be excused, and then it was my turn. Then of course we had a problem. This was clearly a process that had to be dealt with in Romanian, and while I can understand a fair amount of Romanian, I rarely have to use it and so my productive Romanian is, for want of a better word, shit. The judge (I think she was the judge, she was the woman behind a big desk, though she wasn't wearing some stupid wig as I have been led to expect is de rigeur for the judging profession) asked if I spoke Romanian, and I was forced to reply "nu" (I would rather have said, "well, I know a bit, and I can kind of get by in a restaurant or bar, and you know I can stick Spanish words in whenever I don't know the Romanian, but in general my Romanian is not really at an acceptable level for courtroom interaction" - but of course I didn't know how to say all that in Romanian, so I stuck with "nu").

Somehow, though, within about two minutes, and with seemingly no action on the part of either the judge or the stenographer/assistant/other woman, a third woman appeared who did in fact speak English. I can only imagine there is some kind of hidden language panic button which someone pressed and it made some kind of English language bat sign in the building, which brought her running (either that or the jandarm realised that she'd be needed and had gone off and found her)

So, we were all set - first question "Do you believe in god?" Again, I could have gone a for a long winded response to this, which would have gone all round the houses of agnosticism, but I again plumped for a simple "nu" (showing willing by not relying on the translator for all my utterances). This foxed them a little, and everyone looked uncertainly for a moment at the bible lying there, and elected not to pick it up. The interpretor (channeling the judge) then started to ask me to repeat the lines "I promise to tell the truth..." at which point I took over and finished the sentence for her (since it is well established that 62.7% of all TV programmes take place either entirely or partially in courtrooms, my lack of actual experience was more than made up for). When I finished, there was an awkward little silence, before the judge asked the interpretor to ask me to finish with the words "So help me God". Which seemed a little weird, since I'd just told them I didn't believe in him/her/it. They obviously realised this, because the next thing I was told was "and you know not telling the truth is a felony, right?", which I assured them I did.

Finally we got to the questions pertinent to the case, which were all very easy (a few months ago, I was in a small car shunt, with another car which had come from my left at a crossroads in the back alleys near the flat. As he had come from the left, I was completely exonerated since there is automatic priority from the right. He faced having his licence suspended for three months and was arguing that because the junction was a blind one, being at a buliding site, and with a van parked on the corner, he hadn't been able to see. I'm not convinced of this as a defence, to be honest, but I had been called by his lawyer to confirm this van and the building site at the corner. Which I was able to do, since they were in fact there.)

After a couple of minutes, it was all over and done with. the stenographer printed out the statement, I signed it, and I was on my way. I sort of missed the whole drama aspect of it - no defendant, no opposing counsel (in fact no counsel at all), no jury, no wigs, no dramatic summing up statements, no nothing really. Just a large and fairly impressive room, with three people in it. I think even John Grisham would struggle to make a good story out of it.


Gadjo Dilo said...

I was also involved as a witness in a small court case here, Andy. It seemed to be the lawyers rather than the judge who were wearing the funny clothes - though I couldn't see much of the judge's clothes as he seated high up and behind a big desk, so maybe he was dressed as a clown. I was treated very well and even though I had nothing really to do I actually enjoyed the experience.

Soj said...

Awesome stuff as usual! :)

BTW I understand your Romanian isn't so hot as clearly learning Hungarian is of more use and frankly would burn out MY brain cells to learn that one ;) but I thought you'd like to know a little background.

The word "jandarmerie" is just a Romanian spelling for the French word "gendarmerie" which incidentally is how it's also spelled in English. Just google the word "gendarmerie" for more info if you wish.

Therefore an individual officer is a "gendarme" in English (as well as French) with the plural (only in English) is "gendarmes".

Gendarmes are members of the Ministry of the Interior (which has since changed names but I forget it now but their license plates all start with MAI because of it) and are essentially a NATIONAL police force responsible for keeping "order".

In contrast with the actual police aka "politia" who are usually LOCAL units, whether the judet or the city and handle both criminal investigations as well as traffic enforcement (Politia Rutiera).

Gendarmes are often staged in outposts in extremely rural areas too by the way, mostly just to break up fights between drunks and general stuff like that.

If you ever go to a soccer (aka "football") game you will see lots of gendarmes as well because again public order is their main duty.

Again, I salute your fortitude in trying to learn Hungarian but if you ever want to try to learn Romanian pe buna, "for real" give the Pimsleur courses a shot. It's good stuff!