The High Council of Justice failed to hold accountable a judge who speeded, fled from police and tried to use his status as a judge to avoid punishment. The rapporteur in this case asked for the judge’s dismissal, but not a single member of the Disciplinary Chamber that reviewed the case found any violation in the judge’s actions. In contrast, the police officer who stopped the judge was dismissed and sentenced to three years’ probation.

This was reported by Slidstvo.Info.

On 17 April 2024, the Second Disciplinary Chamber of the High Council of Justice (HCJ) considered a disciplinary case against Serhii Kovhanych, a judge of the Tulchyn District Court of Vinnytsia Oblast. The Patrol Police Department in Ternopil region complained against him because the judge had behaved inappropriately during his detention by the police.

Judge Serhii Kovhanych talking to a police officer / screenshot from the HCJ meeting

On 31 September 2023, Kovhanych was stopped by patrol police for speeding. The judge was driving a Mercedes-Benz at 110 kilometres per hour on a road in the village of Smykivtsi, Ternopil Oblast, where the speed limit is 50 kilometres per hour.

The first thing Kovhanych did was to show his judge’s ID and claim that he had not broken any laws. Police officer Oleksandr Rybalko responded: “It’s good that you showed your ID, but everyone is liable on general grounds for traffic offences”. Only at the request of the police officer did the judge show his driver’s licence.

Then, police officer Rybalko left his partner by the judge’s car and went to check the documents in the patrol car. Kovhanych was told that he had to stay on the spot.

Kovhanych repeatedly asked if he was detained, and was told that he had to wait until the case was being formalised. After a discussion and threats from the judge, Kovhanych refused to listen to the police, moved away and ran over a police officer’s foot.

Law enforcement officers began to pursue Kovhanych’s car and eventually stopped it. Due to his failure to comply with police demands and fleeing the scene, the judge was informed that he was detained. Kovhanych voluntarily got out of the car and stretched out his hands to be handcuffed, and despite the fact that Kovhanych did not agree with the speeding, he insisted on being taken to the police station. According to Kovhanych, this would have made it easier for the judge to prove the unlawfulness of the police officers’ actions.

Detention of Serhii Kovhanych / screenshot from the HCJ session

Slidstvo.Info journalists showed the video from the police body cameras to DEJURE Foundation lawyer Marta Bereza. The human rights activist says that the judge’s behaviour cannot be called ethical, it undermines the authority of justice.

“The video shows that the judge immediately started an argument with the police, denied that he had exceeded the speed limit by almost twice, disagreed with all the actions of the patrol officers, admonished them and threatened to sue. All of this can be interpreted as an attempt to exert pressure on the police with his authority,” comments Marta Bereza and adds that this case is a typical case of using the status of a judge to avoid responsibility.

Kovhanych, who attended the HCJ hearing, denied that he had violated any traffic rules. Despite this, the man could not remember exactly what the speed of his car was.

The judge also stressed that the recorded speeding was not evidence, because the police used a hand-held TruCAM (a device for recording car speeds – ed.) when they should have used a TruCAM, for example, on a tripod. They say the law does not allow the use of a handheld device.

Kovhanych’s arguments were refuted by the statistics of court decisions where judges held drivers who had exceeded the speed limit liable, and this was recorded by a hand-held TruCAM.

“The police officer made two demands: to stay on the spot until the end of the proceedings and to limit the movement of the vehicle. These requirements were clearly illegal for me as a lawyer. According to the Constitution, any person may refuse to comply with obviously illegal demands of officials, including police officers,” Kovhanych comments.

Kovhanych explained that he showed his ID to the judge because he had no other documents at hand. He often shows his ID at checkpoints and in other cases to prove his identity, although he confirmed at the hearing that this document is not intended for this purpose.

A judge should be an example for citizens, in particular in the way he behaves with police officers. Therefore, at the HCJ meeting, Kovhanych was asked whether he considered his behaviour during the detention to be exemplary. The judge did not answer this question clearly, but only said that every citizen has the right to act to protect their rights.

According to Roman Maselko, a rapporteur in the case and a member of the High Council of Justice, Judge Kovhanych tried to use his status as a judge to avoid punishment for speeding.

“Stopping a vehicle in case of speeding cannot be attributed to a situation in which it is necessary to demonstrate the status of a judge and present a license. Kovhanych’s statement “I did not violate” combined with his judge’s ID card lead to the conclusion that his main argument to refute the facts of speeding is his status as a judge. This indicates an attempt to use his status to avoid punishment,” Maselko reads out his decision and adds that Kovhanych’s actions cast a shadow over other judges, which is why he should be punished by dismissal.

As a result, the members of the Second Disciplinary Chamber of the High Council of Justice, Serhii Burlakov, Vitalii Salikhov and Olena Kovbii, did not agree on dismissing Kovhanych. They did not have enough votes. However, there were enough votes to support the proposal of another member of the Disciplinary Chamber, Serhii Burlakov, to close the disciplinary proceedings against Kovhanych due to the lack of evidence of any offences committed in his actions.

“It is impossible to understand the reasons for this decision, because Burlakov, who proposed to refuse to hold him liable, did not state or voice his proposal in writing at the time of the vote, and the decision has not yet been made public… HCJ member Olena Kovbii voted against refusing to hold him liable. Therefore, it seems that the consideration of this case was not about finding ethical violations, but only about protecting their colleagues in the robe,” says DEJURE Foundation lawyer Marta Bereza in a comment to Slidstvo.Info.

In contrast, in December 2023, police officer Oleksandr Rybalka, who detained the judge, was dismissed from his post. The court considered this story and found him guilty of abuse of office and sentenced the law enforcement officer to three years of probation.

By the way, activists consider Serhii Burlakov to be dishonest. The DEJURE Foundation wrote that it is unclear how Burlakov’s mother was able to acquire an apartment of almost 40 square metres in Boryspil, Kyiv Oblast, in 2018 with an annual income of UAH 29,000 and savings of UAH 217 in 2017.

The activists also recently filed a complaint against Burlakov for delaying the consideration of a disciplinary case against Vsevolod Kniazev, a former Supreme Court chief suspected of bribery. Law enforcers believe that Knyazev received $2.7 million in undue advantage for influencing the election of members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges.

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