EU countries cannot confiscate goods used in smuggling unless the owner is allowed to bring a court challenge, the union’s top court ruled Thursday.
LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Customs officials can’t keep a truck used for smuggling without the owner getting their day in court.
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on Thursday that property used in smuggling but owned by innocent third parties cannot be confiscated under EU law without the owner having the right to contest it.
“In the light of the foregoing considerations, the referring court asks, in essence, whether [the EU Charter] must be interpreted as precluding national legislation that permits the confiscation of an instrumentality used to commit an aggravated smuggling offence, where that property belongs to a third party acting in good faith,” the five-judge panel wrote.
The case stems from a customs authority’s 2018 discovery at the Turkish-Bulgaria border crossing of a truck smuggling 2,940 antique coins while en route from Turkey to Germany.
Bulgarian authorities seized the coins, as well as the truck and trailer. The coins were stored in the passenger seat of the truck, so the trailer was ultimately returned to its owner, as it was technically not used during the crime. Bulgaria refused to return the truck to the Turkish transportation company that owned it.
OM, as the truck driver is described in the ruling, was sentenced to three years in prison, but on appeal he took issue with the seizure of the tractor.
A Bulgarian appeals court, the Apelativen sad – Plovdiv, referred the matter to the Luxembourg-based court, asking to clarify if Bulgarian legislation permitting the police to seize goods regardless of their owner. Under this legislation, Bulgaria can use the confiscated goods for its own benefit.
“The seizure referred to by that provision, including where the means of transport used to transport the smuggled property does not belong to the perpetrator of the offence, could lead to an imbalance between the interest of the third-party owner who did not take part in and is not in any way linked to the criminal offence, and the interest of the State in seizing that property on the ground that it was used to commit the offence,” the court said Thursday.
Under a 2005 directive, the confiscation of property during criminal proceedings by a member state must adhere to EU law. The EU Charter does guarantee a fundamental right to property, but exceptions are granted for goods used in criminal enterprises.
“In the present case, the referring court stressed in its order for reference that a third party whose property has been the subject of a confiscation measure has no direct access to justice under national legislation…. In those circumstances, it must be held that, in a case such as that in the main proceedings, a third party whose property is confiscated is deprived of the right to an effective remedy,” the court found.
In addition to prison, OM was fined $12,000 for aggravated smuggling.
A major location for human trafficking, Bulgaria has long-standing problems with smuggling. Hundreds of thousands of people crossed illegally through the Balkan nation at the height of the European Migration Crisis. Organized crime groups also use the country to smuggle drugs, cigarettes, antiques and other goods into the European Union. In June, nearly 5,000 stolen archaeological artifacts were seized by Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, from a Bulgaria smuggling operation.