Imperial and Planetary Law
There are two categories of law in the Imperium, ‘Local’ or ‘Planetary’ Laws and ‘Imperial’ Law.
Local and Planetary Laws are set by the Governments of those worlds and deal with petty and minor crimes, often up to and including murder. The influence a Government has on setting those laws can vary, as can the powers of local law enforcement. The makeup of local police forces varies massively from planet to planet as a result; some are more casual volunteer militias whereas on Duroverum, for example, each noble House has a personal security force responsible for enforcing house and planetary laws within their domain, while on Neau-Prospekt enforcement is the business of grim Guild thugs. There is no Imperial-mandated uniformity for these local forces and laws; they can vary from planet to planet, from vaguely sensible consequences for theft and murder, to the frankly bizarre laws governing the presentation of a planetary ruler in artwork.
Imperial Law is the direct opposite. It is immutable; every single line of it laid down in the Lex Imperialis, the Book of Judgement – a text so ancient it can trace its first drafting to the Emperor’s initial subjugation of the warring nations of Holy Terra. It is enforced by the Adeptus Arbites, the Imperial Judiciary and Police force, grim individuals schooled and indoctrinated with Imperial values. Imperial Laws primarily focus upon High Crimes such as treason, and threats to the internal security and stability of the Imperium. However, the Arbites have a vast array of powers and wide jurisdiction and will quickly take over investigations from the local police IF they believe it has a connection to a wider threat.
Unlike local police, Arbites ARE the law in of themselves, they need not bring a suspect to a local magistrate; they are (if needed) responsible for judging and sentencing crimes on the spot. These powers, imbued in individuals who are assigned FAR from their homeworlds as to avoid conflicts of interest, are a potent mix that keeps Planetary Governments in line as much as it does Lowborn citizens. The entire Imperium knows that it is constantly under the stern, vigilant gaze of the Arbites, and that should they stray from compliance with Imperial Law, or fail to deliver what the Imperium desires, it will be the Arbites who will ensure they do not make that mistake twice.
There is one uniform reality for the legal process in the Imperium: neither Arbites nor local Magistrates have any time for trials. Sentencing is almost always carried out on arrest or as soon as the criminal has been dragged before the appropriate official. Only the most prominent and powerful figures are afforded the dignity of standing trial and even then there are many situations where such things are circumvented, especially in the hands of Arbites.
Although the sentencing guidelines for many crimes does give the option of delivering a death warrant, the Imperium very rarely carries out executions of regular citizens. More often than not they are exclusively reserved for prominent and popular criminals for the purpose of propaganda, and for individuals deemed to be irredeemable by the official sentencing them.
For most petty criminals, fines and punitive punishments are used; for those found guilty of more severe crimes the Imperium has penal duty in military Penal Legions, or labour on various penal worlds, colonies and prison ships or to the flagellant penitents of the Ecclesiarchy. Ultimately a dead body is of less use to the Imperium then a live one, executions waste resources in more than one way and disposing of human remains takes more effort than one realizes. Thanks to advanced technology, those criminals deemed too much of a threat to be assigned to penal duties, or that know too much to be safely left intact are handed over to the Adeptus Mechanicus. These unfortunate souls suffer fates worse than death – lobotomised and modified with bionics and transformed into grotesque cyborg thralls known as ‘Servitors’. Indeed the Imperium does make heavy use of these thralls, not just for their tireless labour, but so that the sight of a former neighbour’s face left vacant and mutilated as they work machine-like is a solid reminder of what happens to those who err.
Death of criminals does of course occur; all Arbites and most local police carry an array of lethal weapons, and many ‘non-lethal’ weapons are often the opposite of that. Should criminals resist arrest or present any kind of threat to an Arbites or police enforcer, many will use lethal force rather than be put at risk. This judgement is backed by the Lex Imperialis, which supports placing the life of a law enforcer before that of a suspect.
There are also situations where mass executions are permitted. Planetary rebellions or mass rioting see Arbites turn from a police force to an elite military force to maintain Imperial control of a world – participating in rebellion is a capital crime and the Lex Imperialis supports the use of lethal force to suppress major unrest. In addition, it is not uncommon for both Arbites and Local Enforcers to engage in ‘Crime Blitzes’ against criminals and cleansing of mutant populations. In both cases hunter-killer teams will bring down the heaviest available equipment and scour the area designated as the target of the operation, brutally suppressing even minor crimes or purging mutants wherever they find them.