How I Ended Up in a German Holding Cell

German Holding Cell - Police Sign

As soon as I saw them enter the train car I knew I was in trouble. The doors closed, the jerk of the subway starting caused everyone to unanimously jolt forward and then back, and the new passengers announced themselves with “Fahrscheine bitte” (tickets please).

German Holding Cell - Police Sign

German Police (photo credit: blu-news.org)

Riding Schwarz

I had forgotten to renew my monthly pass when I got back to Berlin after my trip to Poland. It was an honest mistake but this was Germany, where you get neither sympathy nor brownie points for the “earnestness” of a mistake. When the undercover ticket checker approached me, I told him that I didn’t have a ticket and stepped off the train with him at the next station. He asked for my name and identification so he could write up the ticket. Trying to avoid the hefty fine I spontaneously decided to give him the fake name of Jennifer Saunders, claiming that I did not have any identification on me.

With pen in hand, the man asked if I were “angemeldet” (registered) to which I replied that I was – of course not under that name. To my utter shock and horror the man pulled out his phone and proceeded to call the registration office to check. “Shit! What do I do now?”, I asked myself.

German Holding Cell - Subway

Berlin subway, policed by the BVG (photo credit: Michael Day)

Should I Run?

I had seen people run for it when caught in a similar situation and I began wondering about how many runners actually get away. While the man was on the phone I told him that I was going to purchase a ticket for the rest of ride when we were finished to which he nodded. The ticket machine was right near the exit so if I were to run it would give me a bit of a head start.

I knew, of course, that I was being watched and when I reached the ticket machine, I began going through the motions of purchasing a ticket, perhaps getting up the courage to run. I was just about to put the money in, when the man ran to me saying there was no one registered by that name.

The Police Are on Their Way

I had been caught lying. But I kept digging myself in deeper acting genuinely surprised. “Perhaps the name is under Jenny Saunders”, I suggested buying nothing but time. After confirming there was also no one by that name either, he hung up the phone and told me that if he didn’t get the truth from me, he would have to call the police.

Perhaps simply out of pure stubbornness or did I really think I was calling his bluff after he had already made one phone call on my behalf, I simply said, “Ok, if that’s what you have to do”. And of course, he quickly dialed and the police were on their way. Could I still make a run for it? It seemed my window had passed.

I wasn’t sure if I had enough money on my phone for a text, but I decided that if I were about to be hauled away, Mindy should know, so I quickly typed “with police. call me”. Within seconds I received a call from a very surprised Mindy. As I filled her in on the situation as briefly as possible, I could see two uniformed police officers making their way over to me on the platform. I continued to talk as the  ticket checker explained the problem to the police until I was succinctly told by one of the officers to get off the phone.

With the ticket checker still there, they gave me one last chance to fess up and of course, I stubbornly stuck with my story as Jennifer Saunders. Before turning me over to the police, the man handed me a ticket with the name left blank, telling me to fill it in and pay the fine later.

Riding In the Back of a Police Car

On the way to the police car, I pulled out a bank card with my real name on it and declared that I had lied to the transit police. The male police officer replied, “It is one thing to lie to a ticket checker but an entirely other matter to lie to a police officer”. Taking my cue from the officer emphasizing the importance of the latter profession, I responded, “Well that’s why I came clean to you as soon as you showed up”, intending on appealing to his sense of importance.

German Holding Cell - Police Car

In the back of a police car… (photo credit: lulala13)

It seemed to work. “We need proof that you are who you say you are. I need to see an ID with a picture, such as your passport”, he insisted, as he helped me into the back of their police car. With a turn of they key, we were off! If I were a better person I might have felt ashamed of sitting in the back of a German police car but I don’t mind telling you that I felt rather cool, especially passing people on the street who no doubt wondered what I must have done to end up with the police. I think “Bad the Bone” may have been playing in my head.

Dragnet Holding Cell

Mindy called back and I asked her to bring my passport to the Friedrichstrasse Police Station where I was to be held. When we got to the station, I was put in a holding cell, resembling a room out of an old TV police drama. The walls were dingy with peeling faded light-brown paint, there was no furniture save a single chair and a very large wooden desk with a clunky old-fashioned mustard-yellow telephone on it, and a young police officer was stationed at the door to “guard me”. The room was large but dark having a yellow glow over everything from a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and only a small basement-sized half window at the very back of the room.

Please Hurry Mindy!

I was meant to sit in this room until Mindy showed up to prove my identity. Would they grill me like on the TV shows, trying to get me to admit something? Damn, I had already told them the truth! Would they lecture me about riding without a ticket or what it means to be a productive member of society? Nope. To be honest, I received the worst punishment of just sitting there with nothing to do and no one to talk to – I was bored.

But then, like something out of Tatort (my favorite German detective show), an older, and in his own mind, much wiser, police officer, used this opportunity as a teaching moment. He approached the rookie guarding the door and speaking to him like an imbecile, chastised him for facing out with his back to me. “You’re not here to guard us, you’re here to protect us from her. What if she decides to walk around the room a little bit and pick up that phone and clock you on the head with it?”, he said, giving me ideas of ways to misbehave in the room and even possibly escape. I guess he was just older, but not really all that wiser.

So then the young man stood in the doorway staring at me, making us both uncomfortable. He said, “Were you going to do those things?” to which I laughed a bit and said, “umm, no”. “I didn’t think so”, he smiled and the awkwardness continued.

Can I Leave Now?

Finally, I heard a familiar voice out front and I knew my wait would soon be over. I was summoned shortly thereafter and when I walked to the front no one seemed bothered with me. Did I need to check out? Did I need to sign something? Should I just leave? I was completely unfamiliar with the expectations here.

Just to be sure I asked an officer if I could leave and she told me I could so Mindy and I simply left the building. Nothing was said about the ticket at all. So after all that I was only left with nameless ticket not connected to me in any way, shape or form. Honestly, I wish I could trade paying all my bills for sitting in a police cell for an hour. In this case, it saved me 60 Euros!

Have you ever had an issue with the police in a foreign country?

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15 thoughts on “How I Ended Up in a German Holding Cell

  1. Jeruen

    I am sorry but I am not sure what the take-home message of this post is. Is this supposed to be a guide on how to save 60 EUR when one is caught riding without a valid ticket in the Berlin metro? Or is this a simple narrative of an honest mistake? I live in Berlin, and there have been plenty of occasions I have seen when the undercover ticket agent announces their presence, and there is the expat feigning the role of a naive and uninformed tourist, hoping to get out of a fine. Is the Berlin public transportation system really that complicated, that buying a ticket is seen as a hassle? Perhaps I am too much of an idealist and still believe in the honesty system.

    Anyway, the reason I really am confused about the message of this post is because this is after all, a travel blog. Are you trying to give pointers to your readers how to one-up the local authorities in Berlin? As a traveler, I think I’d rather go and visit places with the mindset that I will respect the local laws and regulations. Don’t get me wrong, there are foreign laws and regulations that I don’t agree with (I am an LGBT traveler as well, after all), but those are of a more serious nature than about public transportation. I am sorry if I sound like a prude, but if I were a travel blogger, I’d rather convey pointers on how to survive in Indonesia as a same-sex couple (as you have done in a well-written post last month), than on how not to pay a 60 EUR fine because one did not have a valid ticket in the Berlin metro.

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hello Jeruen,
      This post is only meant as a simple narrative of an experience that I had while living in Berlin, a place I lived for 3 years. The system in Berlin is not complicated at all, but I found that because you don’t have to go through a turn-style, for example, that it can be easy to forget at the beginning of the month if you have a monatskarte. But that is neither here nor there.
      Frankly, there is no message to this post; it is only meant to document the row of mistakes I made that landed me in a holding cell. The last paragraph, which is what might have confused you, was only meant as a tongue in cheek jab at the lack of communication between the BVG and the police. This is in no way a manual for how to get out of paying a hefty fine. In fact, after my experience, I would not recommend trying it at all as one can not even guarantee the same outcome. Hopefully, people will learn what NOT to do if caught having forgotten to renew their card. Case in point, they WILL check if you are angemeldet.
      I’m glad you enjoyed our post on how to survive in Indonesia as a same-sex couple. There will be more posts to come along this same vein. 🙂

  2. Nicole Rossetti le Strange

    I think the confusion comes from you saying that instead of feeling ashamed, you felt cool, that you had got bored because you had no one to talk to, and because at the end of the post, instead of saying something about how bad you felt, and that you regretted it, you just said you wished you could pay all your bills like that!

    For people who don’t know you personally, I think this post could very easily be misconstrued as a ‘how to rip off the system’! 😉

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Nicole,
      Thanks for clarifying that. I’d also like to reiterate that this post was in no way intended to rip off the system. I love the transit system in Berlin. In fact, I think it’s one of the best systems in the world and I used it all the time while living in Berlin. This post was meant to highlight a dumb thing that I did in my life and to laugh at myself. I mean really…who gets stopped for a simple ticket violation and manages to get themselves put in a holding cell?! Not exactly my finest hour! And the kid in me really did enjoy riding in a the police car. I mean what kid wouldn’t? So, thanks for the feedback everyone regarding the topic and style of writing I chose for this post. I’ll keep it in mind for future posts.

  3. Heather

    Hello,

    Thanks for sharing your story, something similar happened to me and I was wondering if this ever came back to haunt you. If it was an issue when/if you tried to apply for a visa extension or anything similar?

    Thanks,
    Heather

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Heather,
      I never had trouble with immigration due to this incident but the ticket checkers actually never got my name and so the name on my fine was left blank with no way to link it to me. The only people who got my name were the police and they surprisingly were not concerned about the free train ride I had taken and instead focused on confirming my true identity. Once they got that, I was on my way.
      And I haven’t been back to Germany since I lived there from 2002-2005. Hopefully, I will have no trouble the next time I visit.
      I have heard of some people who didn’t pay a fine or a bill and leaving the country and not being allowed back in many years later. Hopefully, this will not happen to either of us. 🙂

      1. Heather

        Thanks for the reply!

        The police made me sign a document admitting I committed a crime, but I didn’t lie to the police, only the controllers. I guess I’ll find out if it becomes an issue.

        1. Bounding Over Our Steps

          Wow, that does sound serious. But I think you were very smart in not lying to the police. I too only lied to the controllers and when the police arrived I told them right away who I really was. There response was, “It is good that you told us because to lie the controllers is one thing, but to lie to the police is entirely different and very serious”. I hope that your willingness and honesty with the police will score you some brownie points. But really? A crime? Seems a big hefty for forgetting to renew a monatskarte. Please do let me know how it turns out for you. Ich drucke die Daume fuer dich – forgive my terrible German…it’s been awhile. 🙂

  4. chrisbo

    Just recently got caught on the BVG metro to A-Platz. Problem was, i actually wanted to get 2 x day tickets but the metro machine didn’t accept notes and don’t carry 14 euros of change around with me. My intention to get 3 stops on the metro and buy day tkts at A-Platz – they only bloody stopped me one stop before with a police control. Myself, wife and 15 month infant were interrogated by a female power person, to which i explained my situation that i did not know that the metro machine did not take notes as it was my first time. She had no interest and wanted to charge me my whole week expenses of 80! i eventually negotiated it down to 1 fine of 40 which is probably quite luck as i had no ID, explaining it was all my fault for not getting change. She explained that i pay 40 and could not appeal the fine otherwise i could pay 80 and appeal it. SOunds a little bit dodgy to me but i thought it a good deal in the end having what i read on here.

  5. Iain

    By paying the ticket on the spot does this mean you have a criminal record or does paying the on the spot amount mean you are clear if they even take your details??

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Lain,
      The transit “police” and the real police are very different, or so I’ve learned. With this being the case, I highly doubt that by paying a fine to the transit police that this would end up as a “criminal offense”. In fact, it wasn’t even considered a criminal offense that I lied to the transit police. If, however, I had lied to the actual police, this would be a criminal offense, so I do not recommend that. But of course, the lesson to take away from all this is to simply try to remember to renew your Monatskarte (monthly pass) and then not of this will be an issue. I hope the rest of your trip was fantastic.

  6. Sarah

    Interesting to be aware… It is, however, big brother watching… no matter where or what you are…. It does happened to me once, it was night time and I did not have enough change to pay for the bus fare and I did pay child fare instead (oh that time I was 18 years old).. The bus driver did gave me a real hard time and questions me many times non-stop to get me telling the truth… I still managed to stay saying that I am 16 years old… it was like; midnight, I had to get home otherwise you know the danger out there ….No one cares… This taught me a lesson for next time, pay adult fare….

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Sarah, thanks for sharing your experience. We too have also learned that doing the right thing and whatever is asked of us (especially when visiting foreign places) is definitely the easier thing to do. For future reference, when in Berlin at night, the taxi drivers have worked something out where woman can get a reduced fair. Also in my 20s there, I had several occasions where I had to get home but didn’t have enough money and twice a taxi driver helped me out. 🙂

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