EU Watch

Drink-Driving Case Leads to Torture Conviction Against Italy

The Strasbourg court decided that Italy was unable to demonstrate that police officers' use of force against a woman suspected of driving under the influence was legitimate.

by Federica Brioschi

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has issued another judgment against Italy for the violation of Article 3 of the Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the use of torture.

The case concerned the ill-treatment of Tiziana Pennino, a 43-year-old woman, by the Benevento municipal police. On April 2, 2013, Pennino was stopped by the police for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. The officers tried to make her undergo a breathalyzer test, but it was not possible because her state had become too altered.

She was taken to the police station, where she was denied access to a telephone to call her family to tell them her whereabouts. When she tried to grab a phone, the officers handcuffed her, breaking one of her fingers and causing bruises on several areas of her body.

A medical investigation following her stay at the police station found her to be in an extremely fragile psychological state: she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a disorder that, in moments of particular stress, causes her to experience mood swings.

Burden of the proof

When causing harm to a person that is in the custody of police authorities, the burden of the proof rests on the Government “to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation as to the circumstances in which the injuries were sustained and whether the force was made strictly necessary by the applicant’s own conduct”. With this regard, the Court found that the justifications brought forward by the Government were not sufficient.

The lack of justifications is also linked to the lack of an investigation of the case to establish exactly what happened at the police station. As a matter of fact, the criminal investigation against the policemen was discontinued without clearly uncovering the events and their circumstances, thus failing to establish whether the force used by the officers was legitimate.

On the other hand, a criminal proceeding was brought against Ms. Pennino and given a suspended sentence of 28 days of imprisonment for causing bodily harm to a police officer. The proceedings against her for resisting a police officer, insulting a public official and driving under the influence of alcohol were suspended and she was placed on probation with a requirement that she perform community service.

Judgment

The ECtHR ruled "that there has been a violation of Article 3 under both its substantive and procedural head" because of the treatment that the applicant underwent and because of the lack of a police investigation. The Court therefore granted her €12,000 for non-pecuniary damage and €8,000 to cover all costs and expenses.

Patrizio Gonnella, president of Liberties members Associazione Antigone and the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights, lamented Italy's repeated ECHR violations: "The fact that Italy keeps violating human rights is indecent and costly. What this judgment pointed out, is that ill-treatment can occur in any police body and that judicial authorities don’t put enough attention on the allegations of ill-treatment caused by police bodies."

Other applications for the violation of Article 3 (related to the Bolzaneto and Asti cases) by the Italian authorities are still pending at the ECtHR.