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New traffic laws may lead to double jeopardy

A violation of the double jeopardy principle is the gravest objection the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has raised regarding new road traffic laws that enable law enforcement officers to confiscate driving licenses of drivers who exceed the speed limit in built-up areas by 50 kilometres or more.  Responding to the new regulations, the HFHR asked the Human Rights Defender to take action in order to trigger a constitutional review of the rules.

The amendment to the Road Traffic Act, enacted by the Sejm in March, changed the previously applicable laws that governed confiscation of driving licenses. So far, police officers were authorised to seize the document in a number of cases, for instance, where it was probable that a driver would receive a court order prohibiting them from operating vehicles.

Now, law enforcement officials must confiscate driving licenses of all drivers pulled over for driving 50 km/h or faster than the applicable speed limit set for a built-up area. The license so seized is then delivered to a relevant starosta, or head of a district’s executive, who issues an administrative decision to confiscate the document. The decision may be appealed against before a Local Government Review Board. “The judicial review of a decision ordering confiscation of the document is available but only in the form of a complaint to an administrative court which only reviews whether the decision has been issued legally”, Marcin Wolny, lawyer working with the HFHR, explains.

Nobody checks if the speed was appropriately measured with a device in a working condition, or if the speed limit was properly displayed on road signs. Finally, a party in administrative proceedings cannot rely on defences like a state of necessity. “This means that a driver who is pulled over for speeding when rushing his pregnant wife to hospital cannot legally bring this argument before a police officer who makes the traffic stop”, adds Mr Wolny.

It is even more important given the fact that a decision to confiscate a person’s driving license may dramatically alter the person’s life, for instance, in the case of professional drivers. The HFHR has been already contacted by a number of drivers who argue that because of the confiscation, they had been forced to claim welfare benefits.

At the same time, a decision to seize a driver license is usually accompanied by a traffic violation fine. This means that a driver receives a double penalty (the confiscation and the fine) for the same violation – speeding.

Because of all these concerns, the new regulations should be thoroughly reviewed by the Constitutional Tribunal. In the opinion of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the new rules may be contrary to Article 2 of the Polish Constitution. Consequently, the HFHR decided to ask the Human Rights Defender to take appropriate action.

According to the Foundation, legal seizures of a driving license are not incompatible with human rights standards. However, a relevant decision should be based on the prohibition of operating vehicles, a measure long-known to the law of traffic violations. Also, the confiscation of a driving license must comply with the requirement of proportionality and be reviewable on its merits by an independent court.

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