Getting involved in criminal investigation in Estonia: first steps, and how to get help

If your close one gets involved in criminal investigation in Estonia, this might help you understand what is going to happen soon or immediately, and how to get a local defense attorney hired. The focus of this piece is only on the early stages of criminal proceedings; it is by no means a full picture.

Typical first steps taken in the criminal investigation

If one has gotten caught up as a suspect in criminal investigation, the following proceedings will usually be the first “visible” (there may have been surveillance that lead to the arrest) ones taken by the authorities.

Detainment of a suspect. A suspect may be detained for up to 48 hours without an arrest warrant issued by a court. A detainee is given opportunity to inform a close person about the detainment, with some exceptions. A written copy with one’s rights is provided to the suspect, including the right for an attorney.

Interrogation as a suspect. A mandatory step after detainment is interrogation. The suspect is presented with information (facts and legal basis) on the suspected crime, and a chance to give a testimony regarding the suspicion. Of course, one can (and often probably should) remain silent – a right every suspect has.

Searches. Upon detainment the suspect is searched. Search warrants can be issued for suspect’s place of residence, vehicle, etc.

Specific time critical proceedings. For instance, in DUI cases blood and urine samples, possibly a medical evaluation establish intoxication from drugs.

Taking into custody of the suspect and other preventive measures. A suspect can be taken into and kept in custody for up to six months (in rare cases even more), depending on the gravity of the crime one is suspected of committing. Every two months there will be a review to decide if this measure is still necessary. If a suspect is not taken into custody, he/she is released and some other preventive measure (commonly prohibition on departure) applied. Bails and submission to electronic surveillance are also possible. In connection with taking into custody, application of restrictions on communication (including one’s family members) may happen, usually if there are several suspects. Of course, these restrictions do not apply to communication with one’s defense attorney.

Taking into custody is the last sign needed to start taking things more seriously, it is an indication that suspicion involves not a minor crime and there is some evidence against the suspect.

Why having a defense attorney is important from the get go?

According to the law, use of legal advice at an early stage of the criminal proceedings is usually not mandatory, and the authorities typically will do little if anything to encourage the use of the right to a defense attorney. However, absence of qualified help may lead to mistakes in defense that will be hard or impossible to correct later on. For example, any inaccuracies in suspect’s testimony given after the detainment will be virtually impossible to correct and still have the suspect’s words accepted as reliable evidence later on. When the investigator communicates with the suspect through interpreter, and the suspect itself is vulnerable and nervous after having been arrested, misunderstandings are not only possible, but rather likely.

If the suspect is not fluent in Estonian (the language of the proceedings), it is also useful to have a lawyer to review the recorded minutes for accuracy.

Participation at the hearing held for taking the suspect into custody will require ability to acquire and process limited information very quickly, and assess the situation based on that and in comparison, to earlier cases. This needs a lot of experience to do well, and is clearly a job only for a seasoned professional.

Therefore, if effective use of one’s rights is an objective (which it should be) it is best to have a competent defense lawyer involved early – before the first interrogation and before taking into custody.

Defense attorneys: advocates and lawyers. State legal aid in Estonia

Speaking of possible defense lawyers in Estonia, one should keep in mind that there are advocates – members of Estonian Bar Association -, and other lawyers practicing law here. Advocates have educational requirements, bar exams, apprenticeship, confidentiality and privileges, ethics rules, supervision, and mandatory malpractice insurance. Outside the bar association anyone can practice law, even people who never went to law school! This means there are no quality standards or outside supervision to talk about outside the member of Estonian Bar Association.

If you want a competent defense attorney, go for an advocate, preferably a sworn advocate (in Estonian: ‘vandeadvokaat’). If unsure who you are dealing with, business name of advocates’ law office should have Estonian word ‘advokaadibüroo’ in it, and their names listed here.

If a suspect has no defense lawyer, he/she can request to be provided one under the state legal aid regime. You can find more information about Estonian state legal aid in English from the website of Estonian Bar Association. However, since the state legal aid regime suffers from lack of funding, “public defenders” need to manage quite a workload (in some instances literally several hundreds of active cases) – focusing on one particular case 100% is very challenging indeed.

How to get help and more information

If you need a defense attorney hired in Estonia feel free to contact our firm. If unable to help ourselves, we are happy to provide references to other competent defense attorneys.

In case you want to go deeper into Estonian criminal procedure law by yourself, Estonian Code of Criminal Procedure is a good place to start.