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European high court: Bulgaria must hear third-party claims over confiscated property

The European Court of Justice ordered Bulgaria to let relatives of two convicts contest the seizure of money they say belongs to them, declaring EU laws on confiscated criminal property apply not only in cross-border cases.

(CN) — A Bulgarian court acted correctly when it stopped state prosecutors from confiscating cash that might have belonged to the family members of two men charged with drug offenses, Europe’s top court ruled Thursday.

The European Court of Justice said it was unlawful to confiscate the cash without giving the family members a chance to present their claims about owning the cash.

It was the second time this year that the EU’s high court ruled against Bulgaria’s legal system, which gives law enforcement extensive powers to confiscate property in criminal cases. In January, the court ordered Bulgaria to give the owner of a truck used for smuggling a chance to get the confiscated vehicle back.

Thursday’s ruling came in a case where Bulgarian authorities seized 3,750 euros (about $4,365) from two men found in possession of narcotics. In February 2019, the men were convicted by a court in the Black Sea port city of Varna for intending to sell the drugs.

After they were convicted and fined, prosecutors sought to seize the cash found in the men’s homes and a car, but the Varna regional court blocked them after the defendants claimed the money belonged to family members. The regional court also said prosecutors couldn’t seize the money because the defendants hadn’t actually profited from selling the drugs.

One defendant lived with his mother and grandparents and the other one with his mother. But Bulgarian law did not allow the family members, because they were considered third parties, to enter the legal proceedings involving the confiscated money.

A higher court in Varna, considering an appeal made by prosecutors, asked the Court of Justice in Luxembourg to weigh in on the matter.

In its ruling, the Court of Justice said EU laws on the confiscation of property in criminal prosecutions requires third parties to be given an opportunity to present their ownership claims over property being seized and that this EU law applies to the case at hand too.

Bulgaria argued that the wording of the EU law related only to cross-border crimes, but the Luxembourg court saw it differently and said the EU directive applies to all criminal offenses no matter where they take place within the EU.

As such, the Luxembourg court said the men’s family members must be given a chance “to appear as a party in the confiscation proceedings.”

Thursday’s ruling was similar to one in January in which the Court of Justice found that Bulgarian customs officials couldn’t keep a truck used for smuggling without the owner getting their day in court. The court said property used in smuggling but owned by innocent third parties cannot be confiscated under EU law unless the owner has a chance to contest it.

The January case involved a truck crossing into Bulgaria from Turkey smuggling 2,940 antique coins en route to Germany. Bulgarian authorities seized the coins as well as the truck and trailer. Bulgaria refused to return the truck to the Turkish transportation company that owned it.

Bulgaria has long-standing problems with smuggling and organized crime groups use the country to smuggle drugs, cigarettes, antiques and other goods into the European Union.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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