Fined for Being Roma while Cycling

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was able to determine that in 35 cases (97 per cent) the bikers stopped and penalized for the lack of bicycle accessories were Roma.

In the fall of 2011, the clerk of a small northern Hungarian village, Rimóc, noticed a disturbing pattern while processing the documentation of spot fines levied for local petty offences. What caught the official’s attention was that the vast majority of fines for the lack of bicycle accessories required by law (such as a bicycle bell, front light and rear reflector) seemed to have been imposed on local Roma Hungarians, although the village was largely non-Roma.  This was the start of Hungary’s first ever racial profiling case.

The village clerk notified the Equal Treatment Authority, a national equality body that was created to supervise the enforcement of the EU non-discrimination directives in Hungary, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), one of Hungary’s leading human rights organizations, which is supported by Open Society, about his concerns. The authority launched an ex officio investigation against the Nógrád County Police Headquarters on the supposed violation of equal treatment of the Roma, and the HHC decided to join the quasi-judicial proceedings, carrying out actio popularis litigation on behalf of the public interest. But how could one prove that those fined were overwhelmingly of Roma origin, when registration of ethnic affiliation is strictly forbidden under Hungarian law? Indeed, in light of the existence of such statutory hurdles, how could one even determine the proportion of the Roma population inside the village? And more importantly, is it only Roma Hungarians who ride their bicycles without the mandatory accessories, or are they being singled out by the police in a process of racial profiling?

The Equal Treatment Authority requested data of the police that indicated that in the first nine months of 2011 spot fines for the lack of mandatory bicycle accessories had been levied in 36 cases in the village of Rimóc. Using family names (common Roma Hungarian names in the region) and place of residence based on the segregated Roma settlement in Rimóc as proxies for ethnicity, the HHC was able to determine that in 35 cases (97 per cent) the bikers stopped and penalized for the lack of bicycle accessories were Roma.

It was still necessary for the HCC, however, to prove that discrimination was taking place. Utilizing data from the 2001 census, sociological studies as well as representative samples by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the HHC estimated that Roma people make up 15-25 per cent of the population of Rimóc. An analysis of online second-hand bicycle advertisements from the county and a field trip to Rimóc revealed that over 80 per cent of the bicycles observed lacked some mandatory ccessories. 

On top of that, (yet quite unsurprisingly,) non-Roma people were also spotted using bicycles in the village and a significant proportion of bicycles were not adequately accessorized, irrespective of the owner’s ethnicity. And yet the proportion of Roma among those fined was significantly higher than their proportion among the general population of the village, so the HHC alleged direct discrimination in the form of racial profiling by the police.

In its submission during the proceedings before the Equal Treatment Authority the HHC reasoned that while the individual measures by the police were arguably lawful (as the law did require that bicycles be equipped with certain accessories), the sanctioning practice of the police indicated extensive ethnic disproportionality that could not be reasonably justified and were based on ethnic profiling, a form of racial discrimination. Pursuant to Hungary’s act on equal treatment, not only individual measures, but also “practice” could violate the requirement of equal treatment. Furthermore, the HHC countered the assertion by the police that a person’s Roma ethnicity may only be corroborated by the person’s own submission to that effect. Lawyers with the organization argued that violation may occur if it is based either on the real or perceived identity of the victim.

The case eventually ended in a settlement between the Nógrád County Police Headquarters and the HHC. The police acknowledged that the cumulative effect of the lawful police measures might have led to ethnic disproportionality, but asserted that such disproportionality could not have been substantiated or recognized by the police for the lack of data on the offenders’ ethnic affiliation—a trait that in the majority of cases is highly visible. As part of the settlement, the police in Nógrád county agreed to send 20 officers to a three-day anti-discrimination training organized by the Equal Treatment Authority; to call the attention of its employees to the content of the settlement as well as the anti-discrimination requirements under Hungarian law; to provide the Authority with data on petty offences related to bicycle usage in the region for two years; and to offer obligatory bicycle accessories free of charge to the minority self-government.

This is the first instance in Hungarian legal history that ethnic profiling claims have been partially substantiated by litigants and acknowledged by the police. But does this settlement help people who still experience ethnic profiling in Hungary on a regular basis with all its dire human and financial ramifications? The HHC hopes so. Borbála Ivány, a HHC lawyer, explained that the decision between entering into a settlement and having a judicial decision rendered was not an easy one:

“On the one hand, a court victory could have been efficiently publicized and used to pressure the police. On the other hand, it might have resulted in the melt-down in cooperation with law enforcement forces, and a defeat in the court would have hardly changed the attitude of the officers at all. However, a friendly settlement had the potential to create a win-win situation for both the police and the Roma.”

In the end, the settlement garnered relatively significant media coverage and reverberated on social media outlets—and hopefully within the ranks of the police as well.

Nevertheless, the underlying reason for this case being the only adjudicated ethnic profiling case in Hungary remains unaltered: registration of ethnic affiliation is still forbidden under Hungarian law. But for the Equal Treatment Authority’s power to request data of the police, estimating the proportion of the Roma among those fined for the petty offences described above would have required significantly more effort on the part of the HHC, and would have still resulted in less exact figures probably—no matter how cunning their methodology.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though. Pursuant to the settlement the police are obliged to disclose data on petty offences to the authority for a two-year period, which provides an opportunity for some oversight. Furthermore, the Hungarian government, probably independently from the present case, has decided to set up a registry for petty offences that will include the address of the offenders.  This might make more accountability and litigation on ethnic profiling cases possible in the future, bringing a pervasive issue that is still comparatively veiled more to the foreground. In celebrating this progress, however, it is worth reflecting that Rimóc is only a few miles from the location of shocking serial killings of Roma in 2009 and that anti-minority sentiments are increasingly commonplace in Hungarian political life.  Even as we celebrate this victory, the larger challenge of asserting basic non-discrimination rights in Hungary continues.

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