The European Court of Justice said European Union arrest warrants are invalid unless they are based on a national arrest warrant or a similar judicial order.
(CN) — Bulgarian authorities erred when they issued a European arrest warrant for a suspect of a drug-trafficking ring without first obtaining an arrest warrant in Bulgaria, Europe’s highest court ruled on Wednesday.
Unless they are based on a national arrest warrant or a similar judicial order, European Union arrest warrants are invalid, the European Court of Justice said.
The Luxembourg-based court’s finding came in a case involving a suspect who was among 41 people accused of trafficking drugs in Bulgaria. Court documents identified the suspect only by his initials, “MM,” and provided no details about the allegations against him. European arrest warrants are not publicly available, and Courthouse News was unable to find details about the drug trafficking allegations against MM.
By Aug. 8, 2019, when Bulgaria’s organized crime unit at the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened criminal proceedings against the alleged drug traffickers, MM and 15 other suspects had absconded. On that day, investigators issued an order for MM to appear before them, creating the legal effect of placing him in detention in Bulgaria. Under Bulgarian law, a public prosecutor or judge is not required to approve such a wanted notice.
It would be five months before a Bulgarian public prosecutor would issue a European arrest warrant for MM. In early July, he was arrested in Spain and handed over to Bulgarian authorities. On July 29, he was jailed in Bulgaria.
But the European arrest warrant was based only on the Aug. 9 notice ordering MM to appear before police investigators and not on a Bulgarian arrest warrant. Thus, MM argued that the European arrest warrant was invalid and that his detention was unlawful.
In August 2020, Bulgaria’s Specialized Criminal Court upheld MM’s detention and rejected his plea for a preliminary ruling on the matter by the European Court of Justice. The Specialized Criminal Court referred his appeal of that decision to the Luxembourg court, the final arbiter on EU law.
On Wednesday, the Court of Justice said European arrest warrants must be based on “an arrest warrant or any other enforceable judicial decision having the same effect.”
The court said EU-wide arrest warrants must meet the minimum requirements spelled out in EU law. In the case of MM, the Luxembourg court said those minimum requirements weren’t met.
“The Court notes that the national measure which was the basis for issuing the European arrest warrant in respect of MM was delivered solely to notify him of the charges against him and to give him the possibility of defending himself by providing explanations or offers of evidence,” the court said in a news release. An English version of the ruling was not immediately available Wednesday.
Although it found the European arrest warrant invalid, the Court of Justice said it was for the Bulgarian courts to decide whether MM should remain in provisional custody or not in the absence of a valid national arrest warrant.
European arrest warrants first went into effect in 2004 as part of an overall move to streamline and harmonize law enforcement in the EU. Their use has greatly increased since 2004.
While they have served to speed up extradition between EU states, the EU-wide arrest warrant system also has been criticized for leading to the issuance of too many EU-wide warrants for relatively minor offenses and it has raised constitutional questions. Some legal scholars warn that the system can be abused and erode a legal framework based on fundamental rights. For example, there are concerns that European arrest warrants may speed up the extradition of people to EU countries where the rule of law is weak or potentially corrupt, such as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The worst of any EU nations, Bulgaria ranks 74th on Transparency International’s list of the world’s least corrupt nations, below Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Belarus. The Central European EU nations of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia also rank poorly on the list.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.