CASE OF STĂNESCU v. ROMANIA (European Court of Human Rights) 3861/16

The application concerns the applicant’s complaint that her property was seized for an excessive amount of time, constituting a breach of her right to the peaceful enjoyment of her possessions, in the absence of an effective possibility to challenge the seizure before the courts.


FOURTH SECTION
CASE OF STĂNESCU v. ROMANIA
(Application no. 3861/16)
JUDGMENT
STRASBOURG
5 July 2022

This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Stănescu v. Romania,

The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:

Yonko Grozev, President,
Iulia Antoanella Motoc,
Pere Pastor Vilanova, judges,
and Crina Kaufman, Acting Deputy Section Registrar,

Having regard to:

the application (no. 3861/16) against Romania lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) on 11 January 2016 by a Romanian national, Ms Ionela Stănescu, born in 1997 and living in Grajduri (“the applicant”) who was represented by Ms A. Drăgoi, a lawyer practising in Iași;

the decision to give notice of the complaints concerning Articles 6 § 1, 13 and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Romanian Government (“the Government”), represented by their Agent, Ms O. Ezer, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to declare inadmissible the remainder of the application;

the parties’ observations;

Having deliberated in private on 14 June 2022,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

SUBJECT MATTER OF THE CASE

1. The application concerns the applicant’s complaint that her property was seized for an excessive amount of time, constituting a breach of her right to the peaceful enjoyment of her possessions, in the absence of an effective possibility to challenge the seizure before the courts.

2. On 30 May 2012, by prosecutor’s decision, three cars owned by the applicant and found during a search on the property of the applicant’s partner, S.B., were seized in the context of a criminal investigation for tax evasion and money laundering in respect of S.B. and other people. The seizure measure was ordered pursuant to Articles 163-66 of the Code of Criminal Procedure with the purpose of recovering the damage caused by the crimes under investigation, that was estimated at 1,713,615 euros (EUR). The prosecutor’s decision mentioned that the cars were owned by the applicant and their total value was of EUR 88,000.

3. The applicant’s complaint against the above decision was rejected by the hierarchical superior prosecutor as ill-founded, based on existent suspicions that the cars had been used by the accused, and as the seizure was deemed necessary for the recovery of the damage.

4. The applicant requested on numerous occasions throughout the following years the lifting of the measure or that she be granted the permission to use the cars as to avoid their deterioration. All requests have so far been rejected by the prosecutor who considered that the reasons for the measure continued to be valid.

5. The criminal investigation was still ongoing at the prosecutor’s office at the time of the last information available to the Court, 21 October 2020.

THE COURT’S ASSESSMENT

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 1 OF protocol no. 1 to THE CONVENTION

6. Relying on Articles 6 § 1, 13 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention the applicant complained that the seizure of her assets had interfered with her property rights and that she had been deprived of access to a court and of an effective domestic remedy in respect of that interference.

7. The Government contested the applicant’s arguments.

8. Being the master of the characterisation to be given in law to the facts of the case (see, for example, Radomilja and Others v. Croatia [GC], no. 37685/10 and 22768/12, §§ 114 and 126, 20 March 2018) and bearing in mind the procedural requirements inherent in Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the Court finds it appropriate to examine the complaints raised by the applicant solely under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (see Credit Europe Leasing Ifn S.A. v. Romania, no. 38072/11, § 47, 21 July 2020).

9. The Court further notes that the application is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention or inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

10. The general principles concerning seizure of assets from third parties to criminal proceedings and the relevant domestic law and practice were summarized in the case of Credit Europe Leasing Ifn S.A., cited above, (§§ 33‑44, 69-72 and 78).

11. In the above-mentioned case, the Court found a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the same issues as those in the current case, as it considered that the seizure was disproportionate to the pursued aim, having regard to its excessive duration and to the lack of opportunity for the applicant to judicially challenge that seizure (ibid., §§ 83 and 87).

12. In the present case the Court notes that the measure complained of undoubtedly constituted an interference with the applicant’s possessions (see, among other authorities, OOO SK Stroykompleks and Others v. Russia, nos. 7896/15 and 48168/17, § 86, 17 December 2019; and Credit Europe Leasing Ifn S.A., cited above, § 68). The measure was provided for by law (see paragraph 2 above) and – being ordered in the framework of criminal proceedings for money laundering against third parties – it pursued the general interest to ensure that the use of the property in question did not benefit the defendants to the detriment of the community (see Credit Europe Leasing Ifn S.A., cited above, § 75).

13. As regards the proportionality of the interference, the Court finds no element which would distinguish the present case from the above‑mentioned Credit Europe Leasing Ifn S.A. case.

By October 2020 the measure ordered on 30 May 2012 had been in force for more than 8 years (see paragraphs 2 and 5 above), while the applicant has had no effective remedy at her disposal to challenge it in accordance with the requirements under the Convention (ibid., §§ 78, 83 and 85).

14. In view of the above, the Court considers that, taking into account the duration of the measure and the lack of opportunity to challenge effectively that measure, no fair balance has been struck between the general interest of society and the interests of the applicant, who had to bear an excessive burden (ibid., § 87).

15. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION

16. The applicant claimed 100,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non‑pecuniary damage. She did not submit a claim for costs and expenses.

17. The Government considered that the applicant’s claim was excessive and unjustified and submitted that the finding of a violation would be sufficient compensation for any damage sustained.

18. The Court considers that the applicant has suffered non-pecuniary damage on account of the prolonged retention of her assets without the opportunity to challenge the measure and, making its assessment on an equitable basis, awards her EUR 5,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicant.

19. Having in mind that the applicant did not submit a claim for costs and expenses, the Court considers that there is no call to award her any sum on that account.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,

1. Declares the application admissible;

2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention;

3. Holds

(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicant, within three months, EUR 5,000 (five thousand euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage, 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;

4. Dismisses the remainder of the applicant’s claim for just satisfaction.

Done in English, and notified in writing on 5 July 2022, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

Crina Kaufman                        Yonko Grozev
Acting Deputy Registrar                 President

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