Got Busted? Know Your Rights

Those doing business in the Russian capital expect to brush up against Russia's prickly system of laws.

But everyone from business leaders to those ostensibly standing on the sidelines can have a brush with Russian law, judging by last month's Operation Foreigner, when Moscow GAI traffic police stopped some 1,000 cars belonging to diplomats and expatriates in search of traffic and technical violations.

So when you're waved over by a traffic officer's white wand, or a comrade in epaulets motions you aside, do you know your rights?

According to the Russian Federation's Code on Administrative Violations of Law, the Russian GAI traffic police can stop any car if they have any reason to believe a law has been violated. In practice, though, these reasons can be vague.

"There is a wide discretion [on the part of the officer] used to stop vehicles and check documentation," said Eric Michailov, a lawyer with White & Case. "In that sense you don't have a lot of rights when they stop you, [compared to] in the West."

A driver who is pulled over can ask the GAI officer to display his badge and his number to verify his credentials. There should always be two GAI officers when a car is pulled over and they should be posted next to their police car, Michailov said. This is important to know, he said, because the GAI have been known "to stop individuals on non-working hours to collect fines outside their normal duties."

If there has been a traffic violation, the GAI officer prepares a protocol, or ticket, describing the violation.

Unlike Russians, who are allowed a certain number of "notches" in their driver's license for a traffic violation, after which they must pay a heavy fine, foreigners will have their driver's license taken away and receive a ticket with a notification stating they can temporarily drive until they pay the fine at a bank. They then must bring the receipt to the police station to get their license back, Michailov said.

The driver can refuse to sign the protocol, or ask to sign a corrected version according to what the traffic offender believes is the true violation, Michailov said. If the driver refuses to sign, the matter goes before a court, he said.

The GAI can confiscate the car if the driver cannot present a passport or vehicle registration papers.

When it comes to being stopped by the militia on the streets, people have certain rights guaranteed by law.

The Russian Federation's law "On the Militia," which was enacted in 1991, details what the police can and cannot do when questioning and detaining a citizen or foreigner. The law states that when the police stop someone on the street to ask for documents, the person has the right to first learn the grounds on which they are suspected. These grounds, according to Marina Svetailo, an attorney with the Moscow City Board of Lawyers, can be vague, ranging from drunkenness or disturbing the peace to the officer's suspicion that the person "looks like a suspected criminal."

"The militia have the right to check documents on the street if there is enough suspicion that there was a violation," she said. Svetailo said this law does not draw a distinction between the rights of Russian citizens and foreigners.

In order to make an arrest, the officer must suspect the person of violating either the Russian Federation's Criminal Code or the Russian Federation's Code on Administrative Violations of Law. The police can detain a suspect on a misdemeanor charge, including visa or passport violations, for up to three hours. After that, the person must be officially charged with a violation of the law on administrative violations or let go.

Criminal suspects can be detained for up to three days, by which time they must be officially charged with a crime under the Criminal Code.

All alleged offenders have the right to make a phone call, Svetailo said. Detainees are also entitled to medical care if needed, she said.

If the police arrest someone under the age of 18, they must notify their parents or relatives, whereas anyone over 18 is not required to notify relatives if they wish not to, Svetailo said.

Svetailo said many people come to her office at the Moscow City Board of Lawyers seeking legal assistance. Many of them are small-time offenders, she said, who do not know their legal rights.

"The people who commit serious crimes usually know their rights and have lawyers," she said.