Investigative storiesJustice

The Trial – How a Man Was Convicted of Driving a Car He Never Even Entered

28 Feb 2023
Slobodan Simeunović in the front yard of his house; photo: CINS
Slobodan Simeunović from the village of Kruševica near Lazarevac was convicted last year for driving a car without a license. However, he neither knows how to drive nor has he ever been in that car. This is the story of his struggle to prove his innocence.

Slobodan Simeunović was hoeing tomatoes and cucumbers in his greenhouse when he heard the sound of a motorcycle from deep within his front yard. It was a sign that the postman was coming.

He came out of the greenhouse on that sunny day in May, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and went downhill towards his one-story house.

In his 35 years, Slobodan remembers the postman only bringing bills to the many-member Simeunović household. On 26 May of last year, There was no reason for him to suspect that anything would be different.

“What’s that? The electricity bill?” Slobodan asked, to which the postman replied that it wasn’t, but that it involved two traffic offences.

Slobodan was taken aback because, as he says, he has never had any problems with the law.

This slender man from Šumadija with sinewy hands and black uncombed hair says that he leads a fairly quiet life.

Like many residents from this area, he works in Kolubara. He often uses his days off for doing additional work – chopping wood, working around the neighborhood, and even digging graves; anything to earn enough for his wife and their three daughters. His pastime is football, which he plays in the local league.

Slobodan Simeunović in front of the greenhouse in his yard; Photo: CINS

As he held the envelopes in his hands, the family gathered around him.

He first opened one envelope, and then the other. He read in disbelief.

“As the defendant, you are invited to personally come to the Misdemeanor Court in Požarevac, the court department in Golubac…”

The court summoned him for questioning because he was driving without a license and did not have an ID card on that occasion.

He started laughing. However, the smile quickly disappeared from his face because he neither knows how to drive, nor had he ever been to Golubac.

Slobodan had no idea was that this was just the start of a Kafkaesque trial.

Five police officers, one woman and an undocumented driver

A little earlier, on 13 April, 140 kilometers from Slobodan’s home, policemen from the Veliko Gradište Border Police, Igor Paunović and Dalibor Savić, pulled over an Audi A4 with Požarevac license plates near the magnificent Golubac fortress.

The car was being driven by a young man, while a blonde woman, around ten years his elder, was sat next to him.

The location near the Golubac Fortress where the police stopped the car; photo: CINS

Savić asked the driver for his ID card, driver’s license and registration.

The driver had none of this. The excuse he gave was that he had been chopping wood and that he left all his documents in a different jacket. He also tried to bribe the policemen, Savić later recalled in court.

“Can I give you 20 euros and get this over with?” the driver asked.

“20? Give him 50 euros,” the woman from the passenger seat told him.

Then the driver got out of the car and gave the policemen his personal information.

“3 March 1987, Simeinović.”

Policeman Igor Paunović carefully noted all this down into his notebook with a pen, and then called the central office to check the data. Such a person did not exist.

“This information is not correct,” said the officer. “Do you know that you can be held liable for false representation?”

Then the driver changed his story and “remembered” when he was born and what his real name was.

“29 November 1987, Slobodan Simeunović.”

In moments like these, the police officer should assume that something is wrong, explains retired police inspector Siniša Janković. This was indicated to him by the fact that the mysterious driver offered a bribe and gave the information of a person who does not exist. Janković told CINS that the police should have detained the driver in order to properly establish his identity. He also says that they should have searched him and thus determined whether he really did not have an ID card in his wallet.

The police, however, did not detain the driver.

They radioed the switchboard again, from where they received a photo of the ID card of the person with this information.

It turned out that the driver did not have a driver’s license at all. The car was owned by Radica Gojković from Požarevac, the woman in the passenger seat.

Driving without a license was the reason for the officers to call the traffic police from Veliko Gradište to write up misdemeanor reports.

The reports they wrote at that time were addressed to Slobodan Simeunović from the village of Kruševica.

“It wasn’t me!”

It was on 11 July that Slobodan Simeunović entered the Misdemeanor Court in Golubac.

Border police officer Dalibor Savić, who wrote down the information that the driver gave him near the Golubac fortress, looked at him closely.

“Four months have passed, but I would say that you are the person we pulled over and identified on that occasion.”

“I am not that person,” Slobodan defended himself. “And I can’t look you in the eye because I can’t stand lies.” I’ve never been behind the wheel, so I don’t even know how to start a vehicle.”

“I remember faces well,” the 44-year-old officer Savić replied. “Looking into your eyes, I declare that I am 99 percent certain that it was you.”

Department of the Misdemeanor Court in Golubac, located in School premises; photo: CINS

One by one the policemen took turns – five of them – and all but one of them claimed with great probability that it was Slobodan who was driving the car. Police officer Aleksa Rakić was the only one who said that he was not sure that it was him.

And then the door opened and 48-year-old Radica Gojković walked into the courtroom, the same woman who was in the car with the driver.

She sat in the court chair in the same row as Slobodan. She said she was seeing him for the first time in her life.

“He was a blond-haired, muscular and really handsome man, although I wouldn’t want to insult the gentleman present here, whom I see for the first time in my life.”

She told the judge that she met the driver on the day in question.

“It was a young man whom I met earlier that afternoon and who introduced himself to me as Ivan from Požarevac, 33 years old,” explained Gojković. “I spent about half an hour with him and since I started feeling ill, I let him drive the vehicle.”

Despite this, judge Saša Stojanović ruled that Slobodan was guilty. In the verdict, he stated that Radica Gojković said that she did not know the driver in order to help Slobodan avoid a misdemeanor charge.

Slobodan was fined 60,000 RSD for driving without a driver’s license and another 5,000 RSD for not having an ID card. In addition, he had to pay court costs.

“The police officers carried out the identification process,” judge Stojanović told CINS. “They spoke under oath, under full substantive and criminal liability.”

Slobodan holding verdicts in his hands; photo: CINS

It is common practice for verdicts to be handed down only on the basis of judges’ trust in police officers, Vladica Ilić from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights told CINS.

“The fact that someone is a police officer and an official does not automatically mean that they are telling the truth,” says Ilić.

CINS journalists went looking for the police officers at the Veliko Gradište Border Police Directorate, as well as the Police Station in the same town. However, they were not there, nor did they subsequently contact the journalists who left their contact information.

In October of last year, Slobodan was sentenced after his appeal was dismissed. He decided to pay the fine in installments, but did not give up on seeking justice.

The real driver and car owner owned up to everything

CINS spoke with the driver who was pulled over near the Golubac Fortress that April night.

In fact, Slobodan and his lawyer Ivan Ninić still did not know who had been driving the car that night. One day, while searching Radica’s Facebook profile, they saw a face Slobodan was familiar with. His relative Mileta Simeunović, the person with whom he practically grew up, obviously knew her. They then started suspecting that he had been the mysterious driver.

Since the lawyer had already filed criminal charges against the four police officers, the judge, Radica, and now Mileta, he advised him not to see his relative until everything was over.

However, he didn’t manage to do this.

After the New Year and Christmas holidays, in January of this year, they ran into each other. While returning from the store, Slobodan approached a parked Mercedes, with his relative inside.

“What’s up, brother?” Slobodan says that Mileta asked him.

“I should be asking you that question, brother,” he answered. Something cut across his stomach. “Do you have the time to come out so that you and I can hav a little talk?”

Mileta got out of the car. Slobodan asked for an explanation as to why he gave his name to the police, and Mileta replied that he managed to get away scot-free by doing this.

A little later that day, Mileta confirmed in a conversation with a CINS journalist that he falsely presented himself as Slobodan in order to avoid the police.

“It was like if I gave them your name and information,” Mileta said to the journalist. He also added that he has not received any subpoena because he has not had a fixed place of residence for ten years.

After the report was filed, Radica admitted at the police hearing that she made up the story about the unknown young man and that Mileta, with whom she is emotionally involved, was driving the car when the police stopped them.

The Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Veliko Gradište agreed with her to dismiss the complaint if she paid 50,000 RSD for charity purposes.

Slobodan and his father Dušan in their family house in Kruševica; photo: CINS

The Internal Control Department of the Ministry of Interior has not responded to our questions about how far the proceedings against the policemen have come, while the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office from Požarevac rejected the complaint against judge Saša Stojanović.

Slobodan is still waiting for the postman’s motorcycle to enter their yard again, but this time bringing him justice. He has no problem with paying the fine either. He just wants to prove his innocence.

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This investigative story has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union, as part of the project ‘PrEUgovor Policy Watch: building alliances for stronger impact in uncertain future’. The contents of this story are the sole responsibility of the authors and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.


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