Insufficient investigations into the death of a citizen during a police search. Violation of a procedural part of the right to life

JUDGMENT

Jabłońska v. Poland 14.05.202 (no. 24913/15)

see here 

SUMMARY

Proportionality in the use of force by police, effective investigation and the right to life. The applicant’s son was stopped for a routine examination by competent police authorities. He was arrested for carrying two bags of white powder and in an attempt to escape, he was beaten by the police who hit him in the neck. He was immediately arrested but was found dead. The prosecutor’s office stopped the investigation because the competent Prosecutor decided that his death came from an underlying disease and not because of the violence he suffered.

The Court reiterates that Article 2 covers any use of force and that the inadequacy of the investigation into the causes of death and the perpetrator violates the Convention.

Regarding the procedural part of the present case, the ECHR found that the investigation did not provide clear answers to some important questions about the proportionality of the violence used and the beatings of the deceased. The witnesses proposed by the civil suit were not further examined. Consequently, the ECHR held that there had been a violation of the procedural part of Article 2 of the Convention.

On the contrary, it found that there was no definite causal link between the violence suffered by the deceased and his death, which was likely caused by heart failure. It also noted that first aid had been provided without delay and ruled that there had been no violation of the substantive part of Article 2.

PROVISION

Article 2

PRINCIPAL FACTS 

The applicant, Teresa Jabłońska, is a Polish national who was born in 1954 and lives in Warsaw.
The case concerned the death of her son following an attempt to arrest him during a routine police
check.

On 18 June 2013 the applicant’s son, D.J., was stopped at a police checkpoint for a random search of
his car. The officers found two small packets of white powder and decided to arrest him. When he
started to walk away, two officers tried but failed to overpower him and a struggle ensued with six
more officers who arrived on the scene. After the officers managed to restrain and handcuff him,
they realised that he was not breathing. All resuscitation attempts, by two officers, two passing
paramedics and an ambulance crew called to the scene, were unsuccessful, and D.J. was pronounced
dead on site.

Criminal proceedings were instituted the next day and the prosecuting authorities took witness
statements and collected evidence. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death had been acute
cardiorespiratory failure related to a chronic circulatory insufficiency. It noted, however, that neck
injuries found on D.J. might also have had an impact on his death.

The Warsaw District Prosecutor discontinued the investigation in September 2014, finding that the
police officers’ actions had been justified by the reasonable suspicion of a drugs offence and to
prevent D.J. from fleeing. The prosecutor dismissed as not credible the witness statements given by
the passenger riding in D.J.’s car on the day of the incident and other witnesses alleging that he had
been kicked in the head by one of the officers. He further found that D.J.’s neck injuries had no
connection to the cardiorespiratory failure, which had resulted from “excited delirium syndrome”, a
condition related to stress caused by police actions and associated with excessive hormonal
stimulation.

Those findings were upheld by the Warsaw District Court in November 2014.
The prosecution services reviewed the case five years later, interviewing more witnesses and
requesting another forensic opinion, but they found that the evidence thus obtained did not justify
reopening the investigation.

Relying on Article 2 (right to life), Ms Jabłońska complained about the conduct of the police
operation, which she alleged had involved an excessive use of force, the failure to provide her son
with requisite medical care as well as to conduct an effective investigation into his death.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT…

(a) General principles

The Court reiterates that Article 2, as a whole, covers not only premeditated homicide, but also situations in which the “use of force” that may, as an unintentional outcome, lead to the deprivation of life is permitted. Any inadequacy in the research that undermines the identification of the cause of death or the perpetrator will be at risk of violating this standard.

(b) Regarding the case 

i)  Procedural limb

The Court considers it necessary first to address the procedural aspect of the complaint under Article 2.

It finds, at the outset, that the applicants son died during a police intervention and that in the light of the general principles set out above, a procedural obligation arose under Article 2 of the Convention to investigate the circumstances of his death.

The Court notes that the criminal proceedings in the present case were instituted immediately after the incident, that is, on 19 June 2013. Subsequently, numerous witness statements were taken and evidence was collected. In addition, an autopsy was conducted and a forensic report was obtained. The investigation was discontinued by the Warsaw District Prosecutor, whose findings were upheld by the Warsaw District Court on 13 November 2014. Having regard to the complexity of the case, the Court considers that the investigation was conducted both promptly and with reasonable expedition. The fact that after the communication of the present case, the prosecution authorities decided to complement the evidence with a view to reopening the investigation does not change this conclusion in any way.

The prosecutor found that the death of D.J. due to “stimulated delirium syndrome”.

Ωστόσο, το Δικαστήριο  σημειώνει ότι η έρευνα δεν παρείχε σαφείς απαντήσεις σε ορισμένα σημαντικά ερωτήματα που προέκυψαν στην υπόθεση, συγκεκριμένα: πώς ακριβώς οι αξιωματικοί είχαν χρησιμοποιήσει βία κατά του θύματος ποια ήταν η προέλευση και οι συνέπειες των τραυματισμών στο λαιμό του D.J. και αν υπήρχε αιτιώδης συνάφεια μεταξύ της δύναμης που χρησιμοποίησαν οι αστυνομικοί και του θανάτου του D.J.

However, the Court notes that the investigation did not provide clear answers to a number of major questions arising in the case, specifically: exactly how the officers had used force against the applicant; what was the origin and consequences of D.J.s neck injuries; and whether there was any causal link between the force used by the police officers and D.J.s death.

With regard to D.J.s neck injuries, the investigation did not clearly establish how they could have been caused and what were their consequences. At the same time, although the forensic expert who had conducted the post-mortem examination concluded that D.J.s neck injuries might have had an impact on his death, and Dr A.B. also stated that the strong pressure on D.J.s neck had exposed him to a direct risk of death or grievous bodily harm, the prosecutor nevertheless concluded that those injuries had no connection with D.J.s death.

The Court further observes that five years after the events in question, the prosecution services attempted to review the case and obtained a supplementary forensic opinion in order to eliminate any possible inconsistencies in the opinion of 4 August 2014. Yet, even then, no clear answers were provided. The expert reiterated the findings made in her original opinion and concluded that the victims neck injuries had most probably occurred when officer M.K. had attempted to overpower him. For the Court, the analysis of the origin and consequences of the victims neck injuries carried out by the prosecution service remains inadequate.

The Court does not consider such an approach on the part of the authorities to be satisfactory and finds that they failed to apply the standards embodied in Article 2 of the Convention.

In view of all the above considerations, the Court finds that the investigation failed to determine the important factual circumstances of the case and that there has been a violation of the procedural limb of Article 2 of the Convention.

(ii)  Substantive limb

(1)  Necessity and proportionality of the force used on D.J.

The Court notes that the applicant contested the circumstances of D.J.s death as established by the domestic investigation. She alleged that the officers had used force and restraint techniques which had been disproportionate in the circumstances, in particular given her sons heavy build.

In the present case, it must be noted that the domestic court which examined the appeal against the decision not to prosecute the police officers did not carry out an independent establishment of facts but instead relied on the circumstances of the incident as established by the investigation. The Court is mindful, however, of its finding above that the investigation undertaken by the authorities, including the way in which the facts in question were established, was not adequate and effective. The circumstances of the incident as established by the investigation cannot therefore be considered as sufficiently reliable and objective.

The Court reiterates that, in the light of the importance of the protection afforded by Article 2, the Court must subject deprivations of life to the most careful scrutiny, taking into consideration not only the actions of State agents but also all the surrounding circumstances . Consequently, according to its case law where it was unable to establish the exact circumstances of a case for reasons objectively attributable to the State authorities, that it was for the respondent Government to explain, in a satisfactory and convincing manner, the sequence of events and to exhibit solid evidence that could refute the applicants allegations. However, the present case should be distinguished from those cases. In the light of the factual findings made by the domestic authorities in the present case, it is highly probable that the applicants sons death was caused by acute respiratory and circulatory failure related to a chronic circulatory insufficiency.

Given the absence of elements which could indicate with sufficient certainty whether there was a causal link between the force used against D.J. by the police officers and his death, and whether that use of force was strictly proportionate to a legitimate aim pursed, the Court is not in a position to make a reliable assessment of the question whether the actions of the police officers were in compliance with the guarantees of Article 2.

Consequently, the Court cannot establish the substantive violation of Article 2 of the Convention on this account.

(2)   Provision of medical assistance

The Court reiterates that the authorities have an obligation to protect the health of persons who are in detention or police custody or who, as in the case of D.J., have just been arrested and whose relationship with the State authorities is therefore one of dependence. That entails providing prompt medical care where the persons state of health so requires in order to prevent a fatal outcome .

The Court also reiterates that such an obligation must be interpreted in a way which does not impose an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities. In other words, for a positive obligation to arise, it must be established that the authorities failed to take measures within the scope of their powers which, judged reasonably, might have been expected to avoid a real and immediate risk to life .

The Court observes that the events in the present case unfolded dynamically: the whole incident – from the stopping of D.J.s car to the struggle with the police officers and D.J.s loss of consciousness – lasted about twenty minutes . The chronology of events was determined by the prosecution as follows: D.J.s car was stopped at 8.30 p.m. and shortly afterwards the police officers requested the assistance of the emergency medical services; before their arrival, medical assistance was provided to D.J. by two passing paramedics and also two of the police officers, W.J. and A.O., who performed CPR in turn with one of the paramedics; and the ambulance arrived at 8.53 p.m. In the light of those factors, established by the domestic authorities and undisputed by the applicant, and given the dynamic way in which the events developed, the Court concludes that the authorities cannot be found to have failed in their obligation to protect D.J.s life.

It follows that that there has been no violation of Article 2 of the Convention on account on the alleged delay in the provision of medical care to the applicants son.

Just satisfaction: EUR 26,000 for non-pecuniary damage

 


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