CASE OF WRONA v. POLAND
(Application no. 29345/09)
10 March 2015
This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Wrona v. Poland,
The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:
Krzysztof Wojtyczek, judges,
and Fatoş Aracı, Deputy Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 17 February 2015,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 29345/09) against the Republic of Poland lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Polish national, Mr Piotr Wrona (“the applicant”), on 25 May 2009.
2. The Polish Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Mr J. Wołąsiewicz, succeeded by Ms J. Chrzanowska, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
3. On 14 March 2011 the application was communicated to the Government.
4. On 12 March 2014 the Judge appointed as Rapporteur requested the parties pursuant to Rule 49 § 3 (a) of the Rules of Court to submit factual information concerning the state of criminal proceedings against the applicant at that time and whether he had made further use of domestic remedies in that respect.
5. The Government objected to the examination of the application by a Committee. After having considered the Government’s objection, the Court rejects it.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
6. The applicant was born in 1966 and lives in Puck.
A. Criminal proceedings against the applicant and his pre-trial detention
7. On 19 September 2007 the applicant was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and membership in an organised criminal group. The investigation against him and several other persons was conducted by the Puck District Prosecutor (Prokurator Rejonowy).
8. On 21 September 2007 the Wejherowo District Court (Sąd Rejonowy) remanded the applicant in custody, relying on the reasonable suspicion that he had committed the offences in question. It considered that keeping the applicant in detention was necessary to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings, given the risk that he might induce witnesses to give false testimony. The court also stressed the severity of the anticipated sentence and the complex nature of the case.
9. The applicant’s pre-trial detention was later extended by the Gdańsk Regional Court (Sąd Okręgowy) on 6 December 2007 and on 11 March and 10 June 2008. On 10 September 2008 the Gdańsk Court of Appeal (Sąd Apelacyjny) further extended the applicant’s detention. The courts repeatedly relied on the original grounds given for the applicant’s detention. They also emphasised the need to secure the process of obtaining evidence as the case concerned activities of an organised criminal group.
10. On an unspecified date in 2008 the investigation was taken over by the State Prosecutor (Prokurator Krajowy).
11. On 5 December 2008 a bill of indictment against the applicant and seventeen other persons was lodged with the Gdańsk Regional Court. The applicant was charged with numerous counts of drug trafficking and with membership in an organised criminal group. The bill of indictment stated that six accused had pleaded guilty and agreed to the sentences indicated by the prosecution authorities under Article 335 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (wniosek o skazanie). It was accompanied by 20 volumes of the case file. The prosecutor requested the court to hear 48 witnesses.
12. During the court proceedings the applicant’s detention pending trial was further extended by decisions of the Gdańsk Regional Court delivered on 11 December 2008 and 12 March and 9 June 2009; and by the Gdańsk Court of Appeal’s decisions of 26 August and 25 November 2009, 23 February, 19 May, 25 August and 19 October 2010, 12 January and 23 March 2011.
The applicant’s appeals against decisions prolonging his detention and all his subsequent applications for release were unsuccessful.
The courts continually justified their decisions by the existence of a reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed the offences. They also referred to the likelihood of a heavy prison sentence being imposed on the applicant after conviction. They further relied on the need to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings, emphasising that the accused and subsequently the witnesses in the case had to testify before the trial court. They considered that the risk that the applicant might tamper with evidence or otherwise obstruct the proceedings resulted from the fact that he had been charged with membership in an organised criminal group. Finally, they found that the trial court conducted the proceedings in a correct and timely manner. They noted in this regard the complex character of the case and the voluminous documentation gathered (on 23 March 2011 the case file comprised 36 volumes). They also referred to multiple procedural motions of the accused and their lawyers.
13. Between 12 November 2008 and 14 August 2009 the applicant served a prison sentence ordered in another set of criminal proceedings against him.
14. Meanwhile, on 19 February 2009 the trial court decided to examine the charges against six co-accused in separate proceedings.
15. On 15 April 2009 the court scheduled the first hearing for 13 May 2009. It also scheduled five further hearings.
16. The hearings scheduled for 13 and 28 May 2009 were adjourned due to the absence of one of the accused.
17. The trial was eventually started on 9 July 2009. Subsequently, the trial court held ten further hearings by the end of 2009.
18. In 2010 the court held altogether sixteen hearings. Four of the scheduled hearings were adjourned due to absences or sick-leaves of the accused or their lawyers.
19. In 2011 eight hearings were held by 20 May 2011. On that date the Gdańsk Regional Court lifted the applicant’s detention and imposed on him police supervision and prohibition to leave the country. It considered that it was no longer necessary to hold the applicant in detention as the proceedings were at an advanced stage. The applicant was released on the same date.
20. The proceedings are still pending.
B. Proceedings under the 2004 Act
21. On 12 October 2010 the applicant lodged a complaint with the Gdańsk Court of Appeal under the Law of 17 June 2004 on complaints about a breach of the right to a trial within a reasonable time (ustawa o skardze na naruszenie prawa strony do rozpoznania sprawy w postępowaniu przygotowawczym prowadzonym lub nadzorowanym przez prokuratora i postępowaniu sądowym bez nieuzasadnionej zwłoki - “the 2004 Act”). He questioned the overall length of the proceedings and stated that he had been deprived of his liberty for three years. He complained that due to the lengthy proceedings he had not been able to maintain contact with his newborn daughter and that his financial situation had deteriorated. He relied on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
22. On 16 November 2010 the Gdańsk Court of Appeal rejected the applicant’s complaint. The appellate court found that the applicant had failed to indicate circumstances that would justify his request, as required by section 6 of the 2004 Act. It considered that to satisfy this requirement it did not suffice to question the overall length of proceedings, as did the applicant. It stressed that the applicant should have indicated a concrete inactivity or deficient activity on the part of the domestic authorities resulting in the allegedly excessive length of proceedings.
II. RELEVANT DOMESTIC LAW AND PRACTICE
A. Length of pre-trial detention
23. The relevant domestic law and practice concerning the imposition of pre-trial detention (tymczasowe aresztowanie), the grounds for its extension, release from detention and rules governing other, so-called “preventive measures” (środki zapobiegawcze) are stated in the Court’s judgments in the cases of Gołek v. Poland, no. 31330/02, §§ 27-33, 25 April 2006; and Celejewski v. Poland, no. 17584/04, §§ 22-23, 4 May 2006.
B. Length of proceedings
24. The relevant domestic law and practice concerning remedies for the excessive length of judicial proceedings, in particular the applicable provisions of the 2004 Act, are set out in the Court’s decisions in the cases of Charzyński v. Poland (dec.), no. 15212/03, §§ 12-23, ECHR 2005-V and Ratajczyk v. Poland (dec.), no. 11215/02, ECHR 2005-VIII; and its judgments in the cases of Krasuski v. Poland, no. 61444/00, §§ 34-46, ECHR 2005-V and Krzysztofiak v. Poland, no. 38018/07, §§ 23-30, 20 April 2010.
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 5 § 3 OF THE CONVENTION
25. The applicant complained that the length of his detention on remand had been excessive. He relied on Article 5 § 3 of the Convention, which, in so far as relevant, reads as follows:
“Everyone arrested or detained in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1 (c) of this Article shall be ... entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial. Release may be conditioned by guarantees to appear for trial.”
26. The Government contested that argument.
27. The Court notes that this complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.
1. Period to be taken into consideration
28. The applicant’s detention started on 19 September 2007, when he was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and membership in an organised criminal group. On 20 May 2011 the Gdańsk Regional Court lifted the preventive measure.
29. However, between 12 November 2008 and 14 August 2009 the applicant served a prison sentence which had been imposed on him in other criminal proceedings. This term, as being covered by Article 5 § 1 (a), must therefore be subtracted from the period of the applicant’s pre-trial detention for the purposes of Article 5 § 3.
Accordingly, the period to be taken into consideration amounts to two years, eleven months and fifteen days.
2. The parties’ submissions
(a) The applicant
30. The applicant argued that the length of his detention had been unreasonable. In his opinion, the courts had not given relevant and sufficient reasons for keeping him in detention for such a long period. He also alleged that they had failed to display the required degree of diligence in the conduct of the proceedings.
(b) The Government
31. The Government considered that the length of the applicant’s pre-trial detention was compatible with the standards resulting from Article 5 § 3 of the Convention. They argued that the grounds stated in the decisions of the domestic courts were “relevant” and “sufficient” to justify the entire period of the applicant’s detention. These grounds were, in particular, the gravity of the charges against the applicant who had been charged with numerous counts of drug trafficking committed in an organised criminal group.
They also argued that the domestic authorities had conducted the proceedings with due diligence. They submitted that, despite the exceptional complexity of the case, the investigation had been completed within a period of some fourteen months. They underlined that the applicant’s detention was under constant supervision by domestic courts.
3. The Court’s assessment
(a) General principles
32. The Court recalls that the general principles regarding the right to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial, as guaranteed by Article 5 § 3 of the Convention were stated in a number of its previous judgments (see, among many other authorities, Kudła v. Poland [GC], no. 30210/96, § 110 et seq, ECHR 2000-XI; and McKay v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 543/03, §§ 41-44, ECHR 2006-..., with further references).
(b) Application of the above principles in the present case
33. In their detention decisions, the authorities, in addition to the reasonable suspicion against the applicant, relied principally on three grounds, namely (1) the serious nature of the offences with which he had been charged; (2) the severity of the penalty to which he was liable; (3) the need to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings. As regards the latter, they referred to the risk that the applicant might influence witnesses or otherwise obstruct the proceedings, since the case concerned an organised criminal gang (see paragraphs 8-9 and 12 above).
34. The applicant was charged with numerous counts of drug trafficking and of membership in an organised criminal group (see paragraphs 7 and 11 above). In the Court’s view, the fact that the case concerned a member of such a criminal group should be taken into account in assessing compliance with Article 5 § 3 (see Bąk v. Poland, no. 7870/04, § 57, 16 January 2007).
35. The Court accepts that the reasonable suspicion against the applicant of having committed serious offences could initially warrant his detention. Also, the need to obtain voluminous evidence and to determine the degree of the alleged responsibility of each of the defendants, who had acted in a criminal group and against whom numerous charges of serious offences were laid, constituted valid grounds for the applicant’s initial detention.
36. Furthermore, according to the authorities, the likelihood of a severe sentence being imposed on the applicant created a presumption that the applicant would obstruct the proceedings. However, the Court would reiterate that, while the severity of the sentence faced is a relevant element in the assessment of the risk of absconding or re-offending, the gravity of the charges cannot by itself justify long periods of detention on remand (see Michta v. Poland, no. 13425/02, § 49, 4 May 2006).
37. As regards the risk of pressure being exerted on witnesses and of obstruction of the proceedings, the judicial authorities relied on the serious nature of the offences and the fact that the applicant had been charged with being a member of an organised criminal group.
38. Indeed, in cases such as the present one concerning organised criminal gangs, the risk that a detainee, if released, might bring pressure to bear on witnesses or other co-accused, or otherwise obstruct the proceedings, is by nature particularly high (see Gładczak v. Poland, no. 14255/02, § 55, 31 May 2007). It is also accepted that in such cases, involving numerous accused, the process of gathering and hearing evidence is often a difficult task. The Court reiterates that the existence of a general risk flowing from the organised nature of the alleged criminal activities of the applicant may be accepted as the basis for his detention at the initial stages of the proceedings (see Górski v. Poland, no. 28904/02, § 58, 4 October 2005) and in some circumstances also for subsequent prolongations of the detention (see Celejewski, cited above, § 37).
39. The Court acknowledges that, in view of the seriousness of the accusations against the applicant, the authorities could justifiably have considered that such an initial risk was established. During the period necessary to terminate the investigation, draw up the bill of indictment and hear evidence from the accused and the key witnesses, they could have relied on the need to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings on this ground. The Court therefore accepts that the risk flowing from the nature of the applicant’s criminal activities could justify holding him in custody for the whole relevant period.
40. The Court also takes note of the fact that, when the authorities could no longer justify the applicant’s detention, they replaced it with a less stringent preventive measure and released the applicant on police supervision (see paragraph 19 above).
41. The foregoing considerations are sufficient for the Court to conclude that the grounds given for the applicant’s pre-trial detention were “relevant” and “sufficient” to justify holding him in custody for the entire relevant period of two years, eleven months and fifteen days.
42. It remains for the Court to ascertain whether the authorities, in dealing with the applicant’s case, displayed diligence required under Article 5 § 3 (see McKay, cited above, § 44). In this regard, the Court observes that the proceedings were of considerable complexity, regard being had to the number of defendants and the extensive evidentiary proceedings. Nevertheless, the investigation was completed within the period of one year and some two months (see paragraphs 7, 11 and 31 above). The trial court started the trial without substantial delay, taking into account the fact that it had to decide whether to sever the charges against some accused to separate proceedings (see paragraphs 11 and 14 above). In the relevant period, that is until 20 May 2011, when the applicant was released, the hearings in his case were held regularly and at short intervals (see paragraphs 15-19 above). In the light of the above circumstances, the Court finds that the national authorities displayed special diligence in handling the applicant’s case.
There has therefore been no violation of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention.
II. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 1 OF THE CONVENTION
43. The applicant complained that the length of the proceedings had been incompatible with the “reasonable time” requirement, laid down in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“In the determination of ...any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a hearing within a reasonable time by [a] ... tribunal...”
44. The Government contested that argument.
45. The period to be taken into consideration began on 19 September 2007 and has not yet ended. It has thus lasted so far over seven years for one level of jurisdiction.
1. The parties’ submissions
(a) The Government
51. The Government submitted that the national authorities displayed due diligence in the conduct of the proceedings in issue. They argued that the length of the proceedings was not excessive in the light of the complexity of the case, which concerned charges of organised crime brought against several defendants. They emphasised that the bill of indictment was accompanied by 20 volumes of the case file and the prosecutor requested the trial court to hear 48 witnesses. They further submitted that until July 2011 the trial court had scheduled at least two hearings per month. They argued that the proceedings had been prolonged due to the conduct of the defendants who had lodged numerous procedural motions and one of whom had committed acts of self-mutilation.
(b) The applicant
52. The applicant submitted that the length of the proceedings against him was unreasonable.
2. The Court’s assessment
53. The Court reiterates that the reasonableness of the length of proceedings must be assessed in the light of the circumstances of the case and with reference to the following criteria: the complexity of the case, the conduct of the applicant and the relevant authorities and what was at stake for the applicant in the dispute (see, among many other authorities, Frydlender v. France [GC], no. 30979/96, § 43, ECHR 2000-VII).
54. Having examined all the material submitted to it, the Court considers that the Government have not put forward any fact or argument capable of justifying the delay in the present case.
In particular, the Court considers that the fact that the domestic authorities had to deal with a complex case which involved a number of defendants and concerned charges of organised crime cannot in itself justify the overall length of the proceedings. The Court notes in this connection that the judicial proceedings have been pending at first instance since December 2008 (see paragraphs 11 and 20 above). In contrast, the investigation in the present case was completed within a period of one year and some two months (see paragraphs 7 and 11 above). Moreover, at the beginning of the judicial proceedings the charges against several defendants were severed to separate sets of proceedings (see paragraphs 11 and 14 above). Taking into account the information submitted by the parties as regards the extent of the evidentiary proceedings, the number of accused and witnesses in the case and the number of volumes of the case file (see paragraphs 11-12 and 50 above), the Court is not convinced that the case was of such exceptional complexity as to justify the total length of the proceedings.
In so far as the Government relied generally on the procedural motions and other actions of the defendants, the Court reiterates that the duty to administer justice expeditiously was incumbent in the first place on the domestic authorities (see Kudła v. Poland, cited above, § 130). Notwithstanding the significant difficulties which they faced in the present case, they were required to organise the trial efficiently and to ensure that the Convention guarantees were fully respected in the proceedings.
55. Having regard to the above circumstances and to its case-law on the subject, the Court considers that in the instant case the length of the proceedings was excessive and failed to meet the “reasonable time” requirement.
There has accordingly been a breach of Article 6 § 1.
III. OTHER ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE CONVENTION
56. Lastly, the applicant invoked Article 6 § 3 (d) of the Convention without specifying his complaint.
The Court notes that the criminal proceedings against the applicant are still pending (see paragraph 20 above).
57. It follows that this complaint is premature and must be rejected under Article 35 §§ 1 and 4 of the Convention for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies.
IV. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
58. Article 41 of the Convention provides:
“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”
59. The applicant claimed 3,500 euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage.
60. The Government did not express an opinion on the matter.
61. The Court does not discern any causal link between the violation found and the pecuniary damage alleged; it therefore rejects this claim. On the other hand, it awards the applicant EUR 3,500 in respect of non-pecuniary damage.
B. Costs and expenses
62. The applicant did not make any claim for costs and expenses involved in the proceedings.
C. Default interest
63. The Court considers it appropriate that the default interest should be based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank, to which should be added three percentage points.
FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,
1. Declares the complaints under Article 5 § 3 of the Convention about the length of the applicant’s pre-trial detention, and Article 6 § 1 of the Convention about the length of criminal proceedings against him admissible and the remainder of the application inadmissible;
2. Holds that there has been no violation of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention;
3. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention;
(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicant, within three months, EUR 3,500 (three thousand five hundred euros) in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus any tax that may be chargeable, to be converted into the currency of the respondent State at the rate applicable at the date of settlement;
(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amount at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points.
Done in English, and notified in writing on 10 March 2015, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Fatoş Aracı George Nicolaou
Deputy Registrar President