European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights

Court rules against Spain over police seizure of child porn computer files

Today, Strasbourg judges ruled against Spain in a human rights complaint highlighting the police seizure of a computer containing child pornography.

The European Court of Human Rights decided that the decision by Spanish authorities to grant police access to Carlos Trabajo Rueda’s computer files, containing child pornography material, without prior judicial authorisation, in a non-emergency situation, violated the owner’s right to respect for his private life.

In today’s Chamber judgment in the case of Trabajo Rueda v. Spain (application no. 32600/12) the European Court of Human Rights held, by six votes to one, that there had been:

a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

As just satisfaction (Article 41), the European court held, unanimously, that the finding of a violation in itself constituted sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by Trabajo Rueda.

On 17 December 2007, Trabajo Rueda brought his computer to a computer shop to have a defective data recorder replaced. The technician duly replaced the part and tested it by opening a number of files, whereupon he noticed that they contained child pornography material.

On 18 December 2007, he reported the facts to the authorities and handed over the computer to the police, who examined its content and passed it on to the police computer experts. The investigating judge was then informed of the ongoing police inquiries.

On 20 December 2007, Trabajo Rueda was arrested on his way to the computer shop to pick up his computer. In May 2008 he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by the Seville Audiencia provincial for possession and circulation of pornographic images of minors.

Trabajo Rueda invited the court to declare the evidence null and void on the grounds that his right to respect for his private life had been infringed by the fact that the police had accessed the content and archives of his computer, but this request was dismissed. Trabajo Rueda appealed on points of law and lodged an amparo appeal with the Constitutional Court, both of which remedies proved unsuccessful.

The European court held that the police access to files in Trabajo Rueda’s personal computer and his conviction amounted to an interference with his right to respect for his private life. It noted that that interference was prescribed by law2, combined with the case-law of the Constitutional Court establishing the rule that prior judicial authorisation was required where an individual’s private life was likely to be infringed, except in emergency situations, in which case subsequent judicial scrutiny was possible.

However, the court deemed that the police seizure of the computer and inspection of the files which it contained, without prior judicial authorisation, had not been proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued (“prevention of crime” and “protection of the rights of others”) and had not been “necessary in a democratic society.”

The court held that it was difficult to assess the urgency of the situation requiring the police to seize the files from Trabajo Rueda’s personal computer and to access their content, bypassing the normal requirement of prior judicial authorisation, when in fact the computer in question was already in the hands of the police and prior authorisation could have been obtained fairly quickly without impeding the police inquiries.

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