Download Judgment: English
Country: Poland
Year: 2000
Court: The European Court of Human Rights
Health Topics: Disabilities, Public safety
Human Rights: Right to liberty and security of person

The applicant was a Poland national with sight disability. He was taken by police officers to a sobering-up center as a result of an allegation made by post-office clerks that he was drunk and  disturbed at the post-office after checking his boxes on 5 May 1994. His conditions were recorded and he was assessed as ‘sober’ before he was released. On 10 May 1994, he requested the District Prosecutor to institute criminal actions against the police officers and the staff at the sobering-up center alleging that the police officers had beaten him and the Center’s staff hadn’t behaved well to him.

On 29 May 1994 the applicant sued the Treasury in the Kraków Regional Court and sought compensation for the attack by state agents and theft of his personal belongings. The court dismissed his claim deciding that his arrest was justified. The court noted that the applicant was taken to the center after the police found out that he smelt of alcohol, and the center confirmed that he was moderately intoxicated. The applicant appealed from the decision stating that the decision was only based on what the policemen stated and that he had been assaulted by them and his belongings were00 stolen. On 25 January 1995, The court dismissed the  appeal on the ground that  the applicant’s belongings were taken in the presence of  the policemen and were placed under the center’s custody and thus, the policemen hadn’t robbed the applicant; the applicant’s arrest and sobering-up were justified to preserve public order.

An investigation to the applicant’s complaint had been opened a number of times, and then discontinued (for a finding that no offense had been committed against him) by the district and regional prosecutors.

The applicant lodged his claim to the European Human Rights Commission alleging that his detention in the sobering-up center had been unlawful and arbitrary in violation of Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). He claimed that he was beaten by the police officers and treated in a degrading manner by the staff at the center in violation of Article 3 of the Convention. He stated that as a result of his detention he had lost his personal belongings including his guide dog. The commission declared the applicant’s complaint on the lawfulness of his detention admissible and declared the other complaints inadmissible.

The applicant requested the European Court on Human Rights (the ECHR) to find the state in breach of Article 5(1) of the Convention and award him just satisfaction while the government requested the ECHR to uphold the Commission’s opinion and find there hadn’t been a violation of Article 5(1) of the Convention. The applicant stated that his detention hadn’t fallen within the exceptional circumstances where personal liberty would be deprived under Article 5. The government argued that the applicant’s detention had been effected under polish law and it fell under the exception of Article 5 (1)(e) which made the detention of an alcoholic lawful.

The applicant argued that he was in a situation where he was intoxicated which was different from being an alcoholic. He also argued that terms of the convention limiting personal liberty, including ‘alcoholics’, had to be narrowly interpreted.   The government argued that the term had to be interpreted as covering people occasionally intoxicated and should not be given its ordinary strict meaning. The applicant stated that the Doctor at the center hadn’t listened to his complaints about the policemen and failed to perform appropriate medical tests to establish his intoxication. He stated that he hadn’t caused public disturbance or hadn’t endangered his or others life or health. The government on the other hand argued  that the applicant had disturbed a public place while being intoxicated.

The ECHR held that the term ‘alcoholics’ needed to be understood in light of the purpose of Article (5)(e) of the Convention. Under this provision, “persons who are not medically diagnosed as “alcoholics”, but whose conduct and behavior under the influence of alcohol pose a threat to public order or themselves, can be taken into custody for the protection of the public or their own interests, such as their health or personal safety”. [Para. 61] The ECHR also noted that even if he is not addicted to it, a person’s harmful use of alcohol or his intoxication could pose danger to himself and to the society. Thus, the ECHR concluded that the detention of the applicant fell under the exception of Article 5(1)(e).

The ECHR noted that domestic law provided for different measures that could be taken on an intoxicated person such as taking him home or to a public health center instead of depriving his liberty.  Such options hadn’t been considered in the applicant’s case making the act of sobering-up the applicant unnecessary and the most extreme of the options available. The ECHR thus held that the detention of the applicant was not lawful and was a breach of Article 5(1)(e) of the Convention.

The ECHR awarded non pecuniary damage to the applicant.