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Italy became a nation-state in 1861, when the regional states of the peninsula, along with Sardinia and Sicily, were united under King Victor Emmanuel II. An era of parliamentary government ended when Benito Mussolini established a Fascist dictatorship in the early 1920s. His alliance with Nazi Germany led to Italy’s defeat in World War II. A democratic republic replaced the monarchy in 1946, and economic revival followed. Italy was a charter member of NATO and the European Economic Community (EEC). It has been at the forefront of European economic and political unification, joining the Economic and Monetary Union in 1999. Italy is also a member of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since the Convention was drafted in 1950. Persistent problems include illegal immigration, organized crime, corruption, high unemployment, slow economic growth, low incomes and technical standards of southern Italy compared with the north.

Type of System

Traditionally, Italy is a civil law country. However, the implementation of the Criminal Procedure Code in 1989 [1] moved the criminal system toward common law models. The inquisitorial system has been infused with adversarial elements, making it a hybrid system. For criminal proceedings, the first instance judicial branch is composed of the magistrates' courts (Giudice di Pace), single-judge tribunals (Tribunale in composizione monocratica), collegiate tribunals (Tribunale) and the “Corte d’Assise”. Their subject matter jurisdiction depends on the seriousness of the crime. For example, the “Corte d’Assise”, which rules with the presence of two judges and six lay jurors, has full jurisdiction for crimes such as murder, terrorist association, and criminal (mafia-like) associations. Courts of second instance are the single-judge tribunals for the decision of the magistrate courts, the court of appeals for decisions both of the single-judge and the collegiate tribunals, and the “Corte d’Assise d’Appello” for the decisions of the “Corte d’Assise”. The third and last instance court is the “Corte di Cassazione”, which can only evaluate the adherence of judicial decisions to the law. In exceptional cases, and without time limits, any person who has been convicted may present a request for revision to the court of appeal that has the territorial jurisdiction over the case. The Constitutional Court ensures the adherence of decisions of the whole judiciary branch to the principles of the Constitution. The Superior Council of the Magistrature is the self-regulating body for the discipline of all judges.

Sources of Defendants' Rights

The Constitution was approved in December 1947 and it entered into force on 1 January 1948. It is composed of four sections of which the first one is dedicated to the fundamental principles of the Republic. The Constitution recognizes the fundamental rights of each human being[2], and among them, the equality of all citizens before the law[3], the inviolability of the physical integrity of each person, as well as of everyone’s inviolable personal liberty.[4] The Constitution specifically states that only in exceptional cases the public security authorities may take provisional measures which must be reported within forty-eight hours to the judicial authorities. If the latter do not confirm in the next forty-eight hours, the measures are withdrawn and become null and void. Articles 24 and 111 of the Constitution are the bedrock of the due process in Italy. The former guarantees the right to begin an action before a court, the right of defense, and the right of economic support for those who cannot afford a trial. The latter ensures fundamental guarantees for criminal proceedings, such as the right to notice of charges, the right to cross examine witnesses, and the principle that all judicial decisions must be motivated.No one can be punished for an action that was not a crime at the time it was committed[5]and the defendant is presumed innocent until a definitive decision by the appropriate court.[6]

Capital punishment is banned.[7]

The Code of Criminal Procedure entered into force in 1989, while the Penal Code entered into force in 1930 and it has amended many times.[8]

Defendants' Rights


The Criminal Procedure Code distinguishes between arrest[9] (“arresto”) and detention of a person suspected of a crime[10] (“fermo”). The difference between them is related to the seriousness of the offense, and if the offender is caught red-handed. Arrests occur before the public prosecutor takes over the investigations, the police have the authority to make them. However, both procedures require the police to advise the public prosecutor within 24 hours. Within 48 hours, during which the prosecutor may interrogate the person at the presence of a defense counsel, the prosecutor must ask the preliminary hearing judge to validate the arrest/detention, otherwise the person must be released immediately. A suspect becomes a defendant only after the prosecutor has initiated formal criminal proceeding, formalizing the charges. Suspects and defendants have the same rights and guarantees during interrogation (e.g. mandatory presence of a defense counsel).[11] Moreover, the code gives police the authority to gather information from a person who is not even a suspect yet, and without the assistance of a counsel. However, as soon as the person reveals possible incriminating details, the police are required to interrupt the questioning and advise the person about his right to counsel.[12] In this instance, the public prosecutor may require preliminary detention of a person suspected of a crime. This may also occur if there is serious and grave evidence of guilt, or alternatively, if there is concern that the investigations might be otherwise jeopardized, or that the defendant might flee, or commit a violent crime similar to the one allegedly. The preliminary judge must confirm the request, and a suspect may be held from three months to 1 year, depending on the punishment prescribed for the alleged offense. The detention expires if, during the prescribed time, the judge for the preliminary hearing does not issue a decree binding the defendant over for the trial, or the accused pleas guilty.[13] The accused has the right to be assisted by a defense counsel, and the presence of an attorney is mandatory throughout criminal proceedings. Judges and courts may nominate a defense counsel (the state bears the expenses) for people who do not have a defense counsel or cannot afford to pay for one[14]. The Criminal Procedure Code distinguishes between inspections ("ispezioni") and searches ("perquisizioni").[15] Inspections are mainly observations of places (e.g. the crime scene), and their purpose is descriptive. They are authorized by a written order of the judicial authority, except in cases of flagrante delicto. Searches also have to be authorized by the judicial authority except in an (exhaustive) list of cases provided by Article 352 CPP. Searches are carried out with the purpose of securing evidence or the accused for the criminal proceeding. Line ups and other identification procedures must be put in place according to Articles 211 - 217 CPP. The Code states that “evidence acquired in violation of prohibitions established by law may not be used”, and the court is competent to declare evidence unusable at any stage of the proceeding.[16]

Defense counsels are authorized to carry out their own investigations. The Criminal Procedure Code sets out specific requirements for these activities. [17]


Criminal proceedings commence with a notice of crime received from the police or the public prosecutor. This is the official start of the investigation, which may last for a period between six months and two years, depending on the crime. In certain cases, the defendant will only know about the investigation at the end of the term when he is notified of the charges of which he is accused, and the results of the investigations.[18] From this point, the defendant and his lawyer have the right to access the whole files concerning the investigations. Depending on the crime, there might be a preliminary hearing and then the trial, or the trial immediately. The assistance of a defense lawyer is mandatory, and he may present evidence, require witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, present oral arguments, and closing statements. The defense always has the final word during closing arguments[19] Defendants and their counsels have the right to propose appeals and file recourses to the Cassation Court, as the court of last resort (except for the revision which is an exceptional procedure, and it is to be presented to the competent appeal court).

See Criminal Justice Systems Around the World


  • Overcrowded prison facilities represent one of the main issues affecting the correction system in Italy. According to the most recent data given by the Ministry of Justice, ( at the end of January 2011 there were 67.634 detainees, while the capacity of the prison system is 45.165 detainees. Due to this reason, while the law prescribes the separation of pre-trial detainees from the others, the first one are often placed with regular detainees, with all the problems related to this situation.
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  1. D.P.R. 22 September 1988, n. 447 (“CPP”)
  2. Article 2 Cost.
  3. Article 3 Cost.
  4. Article 13 Cost.
  5. Article 25 Cost.
  6. Article 27 Cost.
  7. Article 27 Cost.
  8. R.D. 19 ottobre 1930, n. 1398 (“CP”).
  9. Articles 380-383 CPP.
  10. Article 384 CPP.
  11. Article 356 CPP.
  12. Article 251 CPP.
  13. Articles 273 and followings CPP
  14. Articles 97 - 98 CPP
  15. Articles 244 - 252 CPP
  16. Article 191 CPP
  17. Articles 391 bis - 391 nonies CPP
  18. Article 415 bis CPP
  19. Articles 523 CPP.