Case of European Court of Human Rights, April 24, 2018 (case BENEDIK v. SLOVENIA)

Defense:SLOVENIA
Resolution Date:April 24, 2018
SUMMARY

Preliminary objection joined to merits and dismissed (Art. 34) Individual applications;(Art. 34) Victim;Remainder inadmissible (Art. 35) Admissibility criteria;(Art. 35-1) Exhaustion of domestic remedies;Violation of Article 8 - Right to respect for private and family life (Article 8-1 - Respect for private life);Non-pecuniary damage - finding of violation sufficient (Article 41 - Non-pecuniary... (see full summary)

 
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FOURTH SECTION

CASE OF BENEDIK v. SLOVENIA

(Application no. 62357/14)

JUDGMENT

STRASBOURG

24 April 2018

This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Benedik v. Slovenia,

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

Ganna Yudkivska, President,Vincent A. De Gaetano,Faris Vehabović,Carlo Ranzoni,Georges Ravarani,Marko Bošnjak,Péter Paczolay, judges,and Andrea Tamietti, Deputy Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 20 March 2018,

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

PROCEDURE

  1. The case originated in an application (no. 62357/14) against the Republic of Slovenia lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by Igor Benedik.

  2. The applicant was represented before the Court by Mr M. Jelenič Novak, a lawyer practising in Ljubljana. The Slovenian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Mrs J. Morela, State Attorney.

  3. The applicant alleged, in particular, that his right under Article 8 of the Convention had been breached because the police had unlawfully obtained information leading to his identification from his Internet service provider.

  4. On 8 April 2015 the application was communicated to the Government.

    THE FACTS

    1. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

  5. The applicant was born in 1977 and lives in Kranj.

    1. The investigation

  6. In 2006 the Swiss law-enforcement authorities of the Canton of Valais conducted a monitoring exercise of users of the so-called “Razorback” network. The Swiss police established that some of the users owned and exchanged child pornography in the form of pictures or videos. Files containing illegal content were exchanged through the so-called “p2p” (peer-to-peer) file-sharing network in which each of the connected computers acted as both a client and a server. Hence, each user could access all files made available for sharing by other users of the network and download them for his or her use. Among the dynamic Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses recorded by the Swiss police was also a certain dynamic IP address, which was later linked to the applicant.

  7. Based on the data obtained by the Swiss police, on 7 August 2006 the Slovenian police, without obtaining a court order, requested company S., a Slovenian Internet service provider (hereinafter “the ISP”), to disclose data regarding the user to whom the above-mentioned IP address had been assigned at 1.28 p.m. on 20 February 2006. The police based their request on section 149b(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act (hereinafter “the CPA”, see paragraph 36 below), which required the operators of electronic communication networks to disclose to the police information on the owners or users of certain means of electronic communication whose details were not available in the relevant directory. In response, on 10 August 2006 the ISP gave the police the name and address of the applicant’s father, who was a subscriber to the Internet service relating to the respective IP address.

  8. On 12 December 2006 the police proposed that the Kranj District State Prosecutor’s Office request the investigating judge of the Kranj District Court to issue an order demanding that the ISP disclose both the personal data of the subscriber and traffic data linked to the IP address in question. On 14 December 2006 such a court order was obtained on the basis of section 149b(1) of the CPA and the ISP gave the police the required data.

  9. On 12 January 2007 the investigating judge of the Kranj District Court issued an order to carry out a house search of the applicant’s family home. The order indicated the applicant’s father as the suspect. During the house search the police and the investigating judge of the Kranj District Court seized four computers and later made copies of their hard disks.

  10. Based on a conversation with the applicant’s family members, of which no record is available, the police changed the suspect to the applicant.

  11. Reviewing the hard disks, the police found that one of them contained files with pornographic material involving minors. The police established that the applicant had installed eMule, a file-sharing program, on one of the computers by means of which he had been able to download different files from other users of the program and had also automatically offered and distributed his own files to them. Among the files downloaded by the applicant, a small percentage had contained child pornography.

  12. On 26 November 2007 the Kranj District prosecutor requested that a judicial investigation be opened against the applicant.

  13. In his defence before the investigating judge, the applicant argued, inter alia, that he had not been aware of the content of the files in question. He also argued that the ISP had unlawfully, without a judicial warrant, passed his data, including his address, to the police.

  14. On 5 March 2008 the investigating judge of the Kranj District Court, opened a judicial investigation against the applicant on the basis of a reasonable suspicion that he had committed the criminal offence of displaying, manufacturing, possessing and distributing pornographic material under section 187(3) of the Criminal Code. The judge noted, among other things, that the applicant’s father had been the holder of the identified IP address and that the applicant had allegedly been logging into the respective program under the name of “Benet”.

  15. On 17 March 2008 the applicant’s counsel lodged an appeal against the decision to open a judicial investigation. He argued, inter alia, that the evidence concerning the identity of the user of the respective IP address had been obtained unlawfully. That information concerned the traffic data and should therefore not have been obtained without a judicial warrant.

  16. On 21 March 2008 an interlocutory panel of the court rejected the appeal finding that, although counsel had argued that the identity of the user of the IP address had been obtained unlawfully, he had not requested that certain documents be excluded from the file.

    1. The trial

  17. On 29 May 2008, the Kranj District State Prosecutor’s Office lodged an indictment against the applicant for the above-mentioned criminal offence.

  18. At the hearing of 8 October 2008 the applicant lodged a written request for exclusion of evidence obtained unlawfully, including the information concerning the user of the respective IP address obtained without a court order.

  19. On 5 December 2008 the court rejected the applicant’s request, finding that the data concerning the user of the respective IP address had been obtained in compliance with section 149b(3) of the CPA.

  20. On 5 December 2008 the Kranj District Court found the applicant guilty of the criminal offence with which he had been charged. Based on the opinion of an expert in computer science, the District Court held that the applicant must have been aware of the 630 pornographic pictures and 199 videos involving minors which he had downloaded through p2p networks and made available for sharing with other users. The applicant was sentenced to a suspended prison term of eight months with a probation period of two years.

    1. Proceedings before the Ljubljana Higher Court

  21. Both the applicant and the district state prosecutor appealed against the first-instance judgment. The applicant challenged the facts as established by the District Court. He also alleged that the subscriber information the Slovenian police had acquired without a court order, and thus unlawfully, should have been excluded as evidence. Consequently, all the evidence based on such unlawfully acquired data should also have been excluded.

  22. On 4 November 2009 the Ljubljana Higher Court granted the appeal of the district state prosecutor in part, converting the applicant’s suspended sentence into a prison term of six months. The applicant’s appeal was dismissed as unfounded. The Higher Court confirmed that the first-instance court had correctly established the facts of the case; moreover, it held that the data concerning the user of the IP address had been obtained lawfully, as no court order was required for such a purpose.

    1. Proceedings before the Supreme Court

  23. The applicant lodged an appeal on points of law before the Supreme Court, reiterating that a dynamic IP address could not be compared to a telephone number which was not entered in a telephone directory, as a new IP address was assigned to a computer each time the user logged on. Accordingly, such data should be considered as traffic data constituting circumstances and facts connected to the electronic communication and attracting the protection of privacy of communication. The applicant argued that the Swiss police should not have obtained the respective dynamic IP address without a court order, and nor should the Slovenian police have obtained the data on the identity of the subscriber associated with the IP address without such an order.

  24. On 20 January 2011 the Supreme Court dismissed the applicant’s appeal on points of law, reasoning that given the general accessibility of websites and the fact that the Swiss police could check the exchanges in the p2p network simply by monitoring the users sharing certain contents, that is without any particular intervention in internet traffic, such communication could not be considered private and thus protected by Article 37 of the Constitution. Moreover, in the Supreme Court’s view, the Slovenian police had not acquired traffic data about the applicant’s electronic communication, but only data regarding the user of a particular computer through which the Internet had been accessed.

    1. Proceedings before the Constitutional Court

  25. The applicant lodged a constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court, reiterating the complaints adduced before the...

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