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CRIME

What happens when a foreign national gets arrested in Italy?

It’s a situation nobody ever wants to be in, but what if you’re arrested in Italy? Here's an overview of your rights and what you should do if this happens to you.

What happens when a foreign national gets arrested in Italy?
An Italian Carabinieri Police officer (L) stands guard at the limit of St. Peter's Square, Vatican. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

Most people come to Italy to enjoy the weather, food, and relaxed lifestyle. Very few come to break the law, but there’s always a chance you could find yourself in trouble with the Italian police whether through misunderstanding or misdemeanour. 

Pray it never happens but if you are arrested while in Italy, what are your rights? What happens next, and who can help you?

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

Whether it’s a road traffic violation, a minor offence or a more serious charge, here’s what you need to know about Italian legal processes upon arrest. 

The Italian system

Italian legal procedures may slightly differ from those in your home country, but just like in most Western countries, the Italian judiciary is independent from the government and all foreign nationals have the same rights (and face the same laws) as citizens.

Rights upon arrest

Upon your arrest, you will be orally informed of your rights, which, in short, are the following: 

You have the right to appoint a lawyer of your choice. If for any reason you cannot find a lawyer, the police will ask the local bar association to produce a state-appointed lawyer (difensore di ufficio). In Italy it is mandatory to have a lawyer when facing criminal charges. 

You also have the right to inform your family and your consulate of your arrest.

Keep in mind that, in case you’re caught and arrested in the act of committing a crime (un reato) or immediately after committing a crime, you do not have the right to know the allegations held against you until the udienza di convalida, a judicial hearing for the validation of your arrest (this must take place within four days of the arrest).

In all other circumstances, you will be served an arrest warrant (mandato), which must include an overview of the allegations.

Legal representation

You are entitled to representation by a lawyer (avvocato) during all stages of the criminal proceedings against you.

You can find contact details for Italian lawyers through the Albo Nazionale Avvocati (National Lawyers Register). Alternatively, you may also reach out to your consulate and ask to be given the contact information of lawyers suited to your case.

As previously mentioned, if you can’t find a lawyer, a defense counsel will automatically be appointed by the police or by the court from a list of lawyers provided by the local bar association.

READ ALSO: Guardia di Finanza to Carabinieri – who does what in the Italian police force? 

Please note that, if you are not under arrest but merely under investigation, you cannot be interviewed by the police in the absence of your lawyer. Any evidence gathered during an unlawful interview will be stricken as inadmissible at trial.

Conversely, if you are under arrest, the interview can only be conducted by a judge or a prosecutor. In such a case, your lawyer must be informed of the interview but their attendance is not mandatory.

Trial of two US teenagers in Rome

Lawyer Massimo Ferrandino takes the floor during a high-profile criminal proceeding in Rome on July 22nd 2020. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / POOL / AFP.

Legal aid

As of January 2021, if you are earning less than €11,746.68 (approximately £9960 or $12,511) per year, you are entitled to apply for legal aid.

If your application is successful, your lawyer of choice will be paid in full by the state at the end of your proceedings.

In order to apply for legal aid, non-EU citizens need to produce an official statement validated by their consulate and indicating their personal yearly income.

Translators

If you do not have a good command of Italian, you should be provided with an interpreter for any stage of the proceedings where your presence is required. The service will be free of charge.

While you are entitled to a translator, you don’t have the right to ask that any evidence against you be translated into your mother tongue. 

Interrogation

Whether you’re being questioned by the police, a prosecutor or a judge, you should know that anything you say can be used against you during your trial. 

As a result, it is advisable that you consult your lawyer prior to answering any question.

Pre-trial detention & bail

Your pre-trial detention or other conditions imposed on your freedom are decided by the judge in camera di consiglio, ie. not in an open court.

The length of your pre-trial detention period depends on the nature of your alleged offence.

For instance, for minor offences, you cannot be detained for more than six months prior to your trial. Keep in mind that, by Italian law, if your trial at the first instance doesn’t end within 18 months of your detention, you must be released.

Local police officers standing outside Milan’s San Vittore prison. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Defendants who are granted bail (libertà provvisoria) are free to go back to their home country unless the judge has imposed conditions that would make it impossible to do so (for instance, the confiscation of one’s passport).

Any breach of the relevant bail conditions generally results in the application of harsher measures, such as restraining orders (ordinanze restrittive), house arrest (arresti domiciliari) or custody.

Note that the judge’s decisions regarding a defendant’s freedom prior to the start of their trial can be challenged by applying for a judicial review at the Tribunale della Libertà (Freedom Tribunal).

Rights while in custody

All prisoners have a number of rights, including the right to security, healthcare and sustenance. Detainees also have a right to unlimited mail correspondence, six one-hour-long visits per month (no more than three visitors are allowed at a single time) and one 10-minute phone call per week.

Foreign nationals can request to receive the Charter of Rights (Carta dei diritti e dei doveri dei detenuti e degli internati) in their own language. The English-language version is available here.

All detainees who believe that their rights may have been violated can reach out to their regional ombudsman and request intervention.

Bear in mind that ombudsmen have the authority to set up meetings with detainees and visit penitentiary centres without previous authorisation.

Please note that The Local cannot advise on specific cases. If you find yourself under arrest in Italy, we suggest you contact your country’s consulate for advice.

For further information, please consult Fair Trials’ online resource hub and Prison Insider’s website. Other useful links are available below:

National Bar Council

Ministry of Justice

National Guarantor for the Rights of People Deprived of Liberty

Member comments

  1. Please correct me if I am incorrect on this point:

    In the case of a person with dual nationality, one of which is Italian, then while in Italy you are seen *only* as an Italian citizen and the consulate of your other nationality can not / will not intervene on your behalf.

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For members

MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

READ ALSO:

Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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