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Driver’s license seized… by mistake. Judgment of appellate court

On 7 May 2019, a Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal brought by the State Treasury Solicitors’ Office in the case of Maciej Kwiatkowski*, a man whose driving licence was seized as he was falsely charged with drunk driving.

Taking his word for it

In January 2015 Maciej received the decision, in which a local authority suspended his driving licence for the period of two years. The suspension was a consequence of a judgment of a district court, in which he was found guilty of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Maciej was unaware of the conviction. He was also certain that an error has been made as he was abroad on the day when he allegedly committed the offence.

Having read the case files he discovered that the actual intoxicated driver stopped by the police had no identity document on his person. In an attempt to deceive the police he introduced himself as Mr Kwiatkowski. The police did not attempt to verify the information provided although data contained in the National Police Information System (including a photo) showed obvious differences between both men. Mr Kwiatkowski lodged an appeal against the conviction that was approved. The judgment was revoked, and the man acquitted of guilt.

As a result, in February 2016 (nearly fourth months after the judgment became final), following a road inspection, Mr Kwiatkowski’s vehicle was towed and he himself was put under investigation in a case involving driving a car without a valid licence.

Mr Kwiatkowski filed a lawsuit in 2017, alleging that the actions of public authorities had infringed upon his dignity and good name.

First instance judgment

In a judgment of 26 February 2018, a regional court awarded Maciej PLN 20,000 in compensation from the State Treasury’s entities: a local police department and district prosecutor’s office. In the statement of grounds for the judgment, the court pointed out that there had been a manifest error. In the court’s opinion, the police officers acted inappropriately in establishing the identity of the person who impersonated Maciej. They failed to cross-check the information received, even though, as the court pointed out, the address given by the apprehended man differed from that recorded in police databases. The court further noted that the officers should have suspected that the arrested man gave false identity when they saw Maciej’s photograph, which was displayed as they pulled his name from the database. At the same time, the court emphasised that the prosecutor’s office was also at fault, as it failed to oversee that the suspect’s identity was properly validated. The prosecutor’s office did not order any further steps to verify the arrested man’s identity, the court reminded. This, the court held, led to an unlawful indictment against Maciej.

Judgment on appeal

On 7 May 2019, a Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal brought by the State Treasury Solicitors’ Office. In a verbal justification of that decision, the second instance court found that the police officers could have easily determined whether the person taken in custody was the same person whose photograph was available to the police. As the court noted, even with poor quality of the photograph’s printout, the difference was easy to discern without the need of resorting to specialist knowledge. The police’s failure to address this discrepancy must be assessed as unlawful, said the court. In the view of the court, a situation in which a conviction is handed down against a person who is the actual perpetrator of an offence but impersonates another person by giving false personal data, is detrimental to the claimant’s personal interests such as his dignity, good name and social standing.

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