Crime and the legal system in Spain
Spain has a relatively low crime rate, but you should be aware of some common crimes in Spain and Spanish laws to increase your safety when living in Spain.
Spain's crime rate is relatively low compared to other countries around the world, but you should be aware of some some common scams, thefts and crimes. You'll need to take some safety precautions when traveling or living in Spain, as well as be aware of Spanish laws to know your rights.
Crime and safety in Spain
On the street
In the major tourist destinations in Spain petty criminals are known to operate, targeting the casual tourists who explore the city centres. People are advised to avoid traveling with large amounts of money and to be careful when using ATMs or paying for goods on the street. Busy locations such as markets, outdoor performances and cafes are prime target areas and you should be extra vigilant. Be mindful that criminals often work in gangs with one member distracting the intended victim, perhaps by pointing at something, while another uses the opportunity to steal their belongings.
- If going on holidays leave a key with someone you trust and ask them to collect your mail on a regular basis.
- Avoid leaving valuables in your vehicle.
- If you see people loitering suspiciously in the hallway of your building or around the street or you hear noises from an unoccupied house, call the police (091).
- Do not allow unknown people into your building.
- Ask to see identification for any representatives of utility providers who call (gas, electricity, water, Internet etc.).
- Avoid leaving bills, official documents with your name and address or documents with your signature lying around.
- Use a timer light when you are away on holidays so that it looks as if someone is in your property.
- Park in a visible place
- Do not leave valuables on display
- Lock your car and activate the alarm
- Criminals sometimes feign accidents or car faults. Use your judgment and call the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) on 062 or 0112 if someone is in need of assistance.
- Do not leave your luggage unattended
- Never check in luggage for strangers
Main types of crime and crime rates in Spain
With the highest proportion of the population (18 percent), Andalusia unsurprisingly has the highest rates of crime. However the rate of crime is actually proportionally higher in the region, which includes Seville, than in other areas (20.09 percent). Particularly high are crimes against freedom (22.98 percent of Spain’s total) and socio-economic crimes, which includes theft (22.47 percent of the national figure). In addition, the rate of homicide is higher than the national average, as are crimes against public safety, which includes driving offences (19.39 and 18.74 per cent respectively).
The region containing Barcelona is the second most populous region in Spain with 15.72 percent of the population living there. The region is responsible for a slightly lower proportion of the national crime total (15.33 percent) but it has a higher incidence of homicide (17.04 percent), socio-economic (16.75 percent) and crimes against public safety, such as driving offences (16.40 percent).
The South Eastern region has the third-greatest concentration of people in Spain, with 10.87 percent of the population. The area has registered a higher share of crimes against freedom (e.g. kidnapping) sex crimes and socio-economic than its share of the population (14.62, 13.16 and 12.77 percent respectively).
The sun-kissed Canaries have a smaller share of the national population (4.61 percent) but actually see a relatively higher proportion of certain crimes, particularly sex crimes (6.76 percent) and homicides (6.30 percent).
The capital city and its surrounding region is the safest of the large population centres. Containing 13.89 percent of Spanish residents it is responsible for just 10.41 percent of all crime. The biggest issue facing the region is homicide (14.06 percent of the national figure). However, in other areas crime figures are much lower, including crimes against public safety (10.89 percent), socio-economic (9.73 percent), sex crimes (10.34 percent) and crimes against freedom (9.20 percent).
Putting figures in context
However figures are always relative. Spain actually has a lower incidence of crime than in many other OECD countries. Figures produced in 2009 showed that the percentage of people reporting conventional crimes, such as those relating to vehicles, property, sexual crimes, fraud or corruption, was 9.1 percent, compared to an OECD average of 15.5 percent. The types of crime, which were above average included robbery and consumer fraud. However, interestingly, the fear of crime was higher in Spain than in many other OECD countries - represented as a feeling of being unsafe on the street after dark - 33 percent against an OECD average of 25.7 percent.
Common crimes to be wary of
Lottery prize scams
In recent years organized criminals from some European countries have begun to engage in lottery scams sending email and letters to residents in Spain. Typically residents are told that they have won a prize in a foreign lottery when the recipient has probably never entered such a draw. In the message the "lucky winners" are informed that in order to be paid their prize, they must complete an enclosed form, which includes their bank details and fax back the paperwork together with a payment to cover ‘expenses’. The contact details are all international but the documents may include genuine looking logos for foreign or Spanish lotteries (“La Primitiva”, “El Gordo de la Primitiva” etc.), insurance companies or government departments. You are recommended not to respond in any way and under no circumstances to provide your bank details or to make any payments.
‘Trileros’: The participant tries to find a ball under one of three cups. Needless to say the game is rigged, sometimes involving an accomplice who appears to win a sum of money.
‘The Little Picture’: The intended victim is approached by a criminal who appears to be intellectually challenged and is carrying a bag containing money or some other apparent valuable. Another criminal appears and persuades the victim to buy the bag, which is switched and ends up containing worthless paper.
Home visitors scams
The Installer: The criminal calls on the intended victim posing as an employee of a utility provider, such as a gas installation company, to perform a system check. They persuade the resident to allow them to carry out fake work and then charge for services not provided.
The desahuanciado: The criminal poses as someone in financial or personal distress. They explain that they are trying to liquidate treasured possessions, such as an expensive watch and offer it for sale at a low price. The item is however practically worthless.
Occasionally Euro banknotes make their way into circulation. You can check the authenticity of notes by the following:
- Feel the 'embossed' surface: Certain areas of notes have a rough feel (numerals, window and gateway motifs). Bear in mind though that this may become worn naturally with age.
- Look at the banknote against light and check for the security thread and matching motif - visible on both sides of a banknote.
- Tilt the banknote: On the front of low-value banknotes, the shifting image of the holographic stripe is depicted, and on the back, the glossy iridescent stripe. On higher denomination banknotes a hologram can be seen on the front and the shifting color ink on the back.
What to do if you’re a victim of crime
In Spain crimes can be prosecuted as either public or private crimes. A public crime is pursued by the Spanish authorities and in these cases any individual who was injured as a result of the crime will not be a party to the action.
On the other hand, a private crime (injuries, defamation, sexual offences) is only pursued if the victim makes a claim. In these situations the victim is considered a party to the criminal action. If the police are called to the scene of a crime or if it involves rape, kidnapping or traffic offences they will file a report. However, in other cases the victim of a private crime must present certification in the form of a written accusation before a Spanish judge, confirming that conciliation between the two parties is impossible. The complaint (querella) that is filed before the judge states who is being charged and the nature of the designated public or private crime. The complaint should also include the following details:
- The Judge or court before which it has been filed.
- Details of the claimer: name and surname.
- Details of the offender: name and surname, if these are unknown, a description of the offender shall be provided.
- Description of the offence: a concise statement of the facts; date, place and time when it occurred.
- Description of legal steps, proofs and investigations to be taken in order to verify that the offence was indeed committed.
- Claimer signature.
Along with the accusation, evidence will be required. You may also need to provide funds to cover the proceeding expenses.
Victims also have the option to file a criminal report (denuncia) rather than a criminal complaint (querella). A criminal report does not need to include a description of the offender and bail is not required.
Once an accusation has been made the judge will decide whether to start a criminal proceeding against the accused. If the complainant disagrees with the judge’s decision it can be appealed. The person making the complaint also has the option to act as the prosecuting party. It is possible for the claimer (querellante) to renounce the claim at any time, although the person may be held civilly or criminally liable.
If you have been aggrieved in Spain and are willing to claim before the Spanish courts, it is strongly advisable to seek the assistance of a Spanish Lawyer.
Witnesses to a crime
Individuals who have witnessed the commission of a crime are obliged to inform the Spanish authorities with the exception of:
- The spouse of the offender.
- Ascendants or descendants of the offender.
- Lawyers and Attorneys at Court with respect to their customers' declarations.
- Priests with respect the notices confessed to them.
Levels of crime punishment
In Spain there are three levels of punishment that can be imposed, depending on the severity of the offence:
These include the most serious offences (delitos) involving significant amounts of harm or threat against the person (murder or manslaughter), property (thefts committed under certain circumstances), national security, drug trafficking etc. Penalties consist of:
- Jail terms exceeding three years.
- Suspension of employment or public occupation for more than three years.
- Loss of a driver’s license for more than six years.
- Loss of weapon’s license for more than six years.
- Prohibition from visiting or living in specific places for three years or more.
Less serious penalties
Crimes falling into the next category include involuntary manslaughter, less serious thefts, driving a motor vehicle in Spain under the influence of drugs or alcohol and penalties are in line with the following:
- Jail terms of from six months to three years.
- Suspension of employment or public occupation for up to three years.
- Loss of a driver’s license for between one to six years.
- Loss of weapon’s license for between one to six years.
- Prohibition from visiting or living in specific places for between six months and three years.
- Fines of 12 months or more; which are calculated using the system called 'días multa'. The person must pay a fine based on a prescribed percentage (between EUR 1.2 and EUR 300.51) multiplied by the number of days in the sentence.
- House arrest from 7 to 24 weekends (The weekend's duration is 36 hours, equivalent to 2 days of freedom deprivation).
- Community service from 96 to 384 hours.
The least serious crimes are included in this category, such as thefts of property under EUR 300. Penalties include:
- Driving license deprivation from three months to one year.
- Weapons' use and hold deprivation by a term from three months to one year.
- Fines of five days to two months; which are calculated as for less serious penalties.
- Community service from 16 to 96 hours.
- House arrest from one to six weekends (It is considered weekends' duration, 36 hours, two days of freedom deprivation).
Laws specific to Spain
Special Tax Regime (REF)
Companies operating in the Canary Islands are eligible for special tax incentives:
- VAT is not applied in the Canary Islands; instead there is a specific Sales Tax (IGIC), which has a general rate of 5%. In addition to increased and reduced rates of IGIC, there is a zero tax rate for certain basic need products and services (e.g. telecommunications).
- Exemptions from duty on capital increases.
- The use of undistributed profits to reduce the taxable base provided that the amounts concerned are invested within three years in certain qualifying fixed assets or public stock.
- Enhanced tax credits for various types of investment.
Terrorism & human rights
Spanish has actively battled forces it sees as a threat to the state, with a long history of enforcing laws against the Basque separatist group, ETA. Spanish prosecutors have also investigated the existence of state sponsored death squads in the assassination of 27 ETA members and operating in France. The investigation, by Judge Garzón, resulted in great political pressure being placed on the government of former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, which subsequently fell.
In recent years Spanish prosecutors has aggressively targeted cases of serious human rights abuses, including filing criminal charges against former heads of state and senior political figures of foreign countries. In 1996, Spanish prosecutors filed charges of genocide and terrorism against former military leaders of Argentina and Chile. The charges related to acts committed against Spanish nationals during the military dictatorships in the South American countries. A 1958 Spanish-Chilean convention on dual citizenship allows any Chilean, whether living in Spain or not, to file a suit in Spanish court with the same rights as a Spanish citizen.
In 2012 Garzón himself was prosecuted for his decision to investigate the government involvement into organised death squads. Spain had in place a 1977 amnesty law, which had precluded investigations previously. Garzón’s decision was in line with international law but fell foul of Spanish law, resulting in the prosecution.
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.