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On Friday, a group of 32 members of Poland’s right-wing coalition government headed by Jan Kanthak (an MP from the junior coalition partner United Poland) introduced a new bill that would make it illegal to refuse penalties issued by the police for minor offenses. Choosing to present a draft in that way, the ruling camp is yet again fast-tracking legislative procedures and bypassing the mandatory consultation process.

Seven days to appeal the fine in court

Justifying the need to amend the penal code, the ruling camp argues that "the refusal to accept the fine is often impulsive and ill-considered, and therefore only burdens the courts with additional bureaucracy”.

Most importantly, the proposed amendment addresses the possibility of challenging a police-issued fine in court. Under the current law, if we refuse to accept a penalty notice, the police will ask the court to enforce it. The amended legislation will make it mandatory for the alleged offender to accept and pay the fine right away, with a possibility to appeal the fine in the district court within the next seven days.

The proposal also stipulates that court proceedings are to take place under special conditions. If the fined person fails to present all the available proof of innocence during the appeal process, he/she will not be able to invoke it in later proceedings. The court can either revoke the penalty or uphold it. However, it may also impose more severe punishment. The police officers are required to inform the punished person of this option, possibly to discourage appeals.

Many lawyers consider this change unconstitutional. – It requires an alleged offender to pay a fine before the court has even officially proved the person’s guilt– says Mikołaj Małecki, a professor of criminal law at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

A cure worse than the disease

Asked about reimbursements for wrongly issued penalties, the attorney and criminal law expert, Agnieszka Helsztyńska, anticipates the process to be lengthy, tedious and involving considerable legal expertise. In her view, the government’s justification for the bill reveals a condescending attitude towards citizens and can be seen as an attempt at introducing police state standards. - Repressing civil rights and strengthening police power is supposed to be a remedy for the growing social discontent. What we get is a cure worse than the disease itself -she says.

People participating in the Women’s Strike protests are fined en masse, but organizers advise them not to accept the penalty notices. Members of the pro-democracy protest movement Citizens of Poland (Obywatele RP) have been doing this for years, and indeed, statistics show that courts rarely found them guilty.  According to a recent report, out of a total of 800 cases qualified by the police as minor offenses, only a little over 4% of the protesters ended up with official charges.

Coalition divided over the new amendment

Criticizing the legislative proposal on social media groups, protesters say that the government “aims to create a chilling effect”. “Are you protesting? Better get your wallet ready!”- someone writes. Some of the comments also point out that high school and university students, all those who do not yet have a steady source of income, will be hit especially hard.

However, the ruling Law and Justice party won’t have an easy time passing the bill. On Saturday, the leader of the junior coalition party Agreement, Jarosław Gowin, said that his faction wasn’t informed about the plans to amend the penal code.  On Sunday, he took to Twitter to announce that his party “opposes the plans to put a ban on refusing police-issued penalty notices”.

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