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€26,000 for failure adequately to investigate death arising from suspect’s arrest and restraint

In Jabłońska v Poland [2020] ECHR 329, the European Court of Human Rights held that a failure of an investigation to provide clear answers to the the circumstances surrounding police use of force when arresting and restraining a fleeing suspect, the origin and consequences of the suspect’s injuries and any causal link between the force used and the suspect’s death amounted to a breach of Article 2, justifying damages of €26,000.

Police officers stopped two men, D and M, in a car in which officers found two packets containing white powder [4]. D declined to co-operate with his arrest. Two officers tried and failed to overpower him; six more officers [5] eventually subdued and handcuffed him, after which they realised he was not breathing. He died shortly after.

A post-mortem concluded that D’s death was caused by acute cardiorespiratory failure and that his neck injuries might have contributed to this [8]. There were traces of cocaine and cannabis in his body, indicating that he was a cocaine user [11].

A forensic report stated that injuries on D’s neck had been inflicted by a hard blunt object, which could have been caused when officer MK attempted to restrain him in a neck hold or when he fell to the ground [13]. Death was caused by cardiorespiratory failure. It could not be established that the physical or neck injuries had caused this [14]. It could have resulted from “excited delirium syndrome” [15].

Police officers said that D had been aggressive, agitated, violent and that he repeatedly hit his head on the pavement. He then hit an officer in the stomach, so officers hit him twice to the left side. Four officers managed to restrain and handcuff him [19]. D’s friend M said that one of the officers had kicked D in the head three times. Three other witnesses said that officers had hit him [21].

A second forensic report said that D’s neck injuries could have been caused by MK’s hanging from D’s neck. It corrected the first report, by stating that the neck injuries could have occurred not by D’s falling to the ground but when he was already on the ground [36]. They had probably occurred when MK tried overpower him [37].

Officer MK later said that he had no reason to believe D could have been under the influence of drugs, for the purpose of following specific procedures for such an instance [38].

The investigation concluded that there D’s death resulted from excited delirium syndrome, arising from his being a cocaine user [22], [39].

The court recalled that authorities had to take reasonable measures to secure evidence concerning the incident, including eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence. Any deficiency in the investigation which undermined its ability to establish he cause of death would risk falling short of this standard [62].

The investigation took numerous witness statements, collected evidence and obtained two forensic reports. However, it failed to establish how many officers had used force against D, what was the origin and consequence of D’s neck injuries and whether there was any causal link between the force used and D’s death [68].  There had been no further investigation into the allegations that the police had beaten D during his arrest or the inconsistency between the accounts of the officers and that of MS and the other witnesses, who had said that an officer had kicked D in the head [71].

Despite the request of D’s mother that authorities organise a witness confrontation and her submitting information regarding other potential witnesses, the authorities failed to contact them until five years after the incident, by which time they had no recollection of it [71].

There was, therefore, a failure to provide clear answers as to the circumstances surrounding the police officers’ use of force, origin and consequences of injuries and any causal link between the force used and the death, despite eyewitness testimonies and forensic evidence.

The court found this approach to fall short of the requirements to satisfy the procedural obligation of Article 2 [73] and awarded €26,000 to D’s mother [88]. It considered itself unable to determine whether there had been a breach of the substantive obligation of Article 2, as it was in no position to make a reliable assessment of whether the actions of the officers were in compliance with it [79].