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EXPLAINED: What do the Danish words used in crime investigations mean?

The Local Denmark
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EXPLAINED: What do the Danish words used in crime investigations mean?
Terminology used in Danish in relation to police investigations and court cases can be tricky to understand, even for an experienced Danish learner. File photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Danish police and prosecutors use terminology in criminal investigations and trials which don’t always match up with words used in English-language systems. We explain the various terms in use.

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Media reports on Danish police investigations and court trials often include words such as varetægtsfængslet, grundlovsforhør, tiltale and sigtelse. 

For people who speak Danish as a second language these can sometimes be hard to understand. They may not quite match with what seems to be going on in the rest of the report, or have apparently overlapping meanings.

Grundlovsforhør/Varetægtsfængslet

If someone is arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, police may deem it necessary to detain that person while investigation is ongoing. Situations in which this can occur include if police think the person could affect the investigation if they are released or if they are looking for possible accomplices.

For a suspect in an investigation to be held for more than 24 hours, a judge must rule in favour of this. The suspect is therefore brought before a judge in what is termed a grundlovsforhør, literally a “constitutional hearing”.

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Should the judge agree with police on the extended detention, the suspect will be varetægtsfængslet, meaning detained or remanded in police custody. An expiry date is set for the detention, and another hearing is required if police want to extend the suspect’s custody after that. In serious cases the varetægtsfængsling (police imprisonment) can continue until the court case, if charges are brought against the suspect.

Sigtet/sigtelse

A suspect (mistænkt) in a case can be sigtet (‘provisionally’ charged). The noun for this type of provisional charge is sigtelse. 

If someone is sigtet, police are yet to decide whether they believe that person is guilty, but they remain a suspect. Police raise provisional charges (rejser sigtelser) against a person when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that person of a crime, and they want to proceed with investigation of them.

Being provisionally charged gives the suspect certain rights such as the right to be provided with a lawyer and to access information from the police investigation (efterforskning). They can also state whether they deny or accept the provisional charge or parts of it.

Tiltale

Once police investigation against the suspect has concluded, the police prosecution authority (anklagemyndigheden) decides whether it provides sufficient basis for a formal charge. This is the approximate equivalent to an indictment in the US legal system.

The police prosecutor will decide to press official charges (rejse tiltale) against the subject if it deems there to be a strong enough case for the person to be found guilty in court.

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Skyld

Skyld meaning guilt is not implied by either provisional or formal charges. Skyldsspørgsmålet (the question of guilt) is determined or afgjort in court.

Denmark has three levels of court at which criminal cases are tried. The district or city court is most commonly referred to as byretten or simply retten followed by the name of the town, for example Retten i Roskilde would be Roskilde City Court.

Appeals (anker) against district court rulings go to the high court, which in Danish is called a landsret, literally “national court”. There are two high courts, Østre Landsret and Vestre Landsret, covering the eastern and western parts of Denmark respectively.

Denmark’s Supreme Court is called Højesteretten, which translates to “the highest court”.

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