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Spain, Constitutional Court, Melloni, STC 26/2014, 13 February 2014

Deciding bodies and decisions

Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) Decision of 13/02/2014, case no 26/2014

 

Area of lawBack to top ▲
Criminal Law
Subject matterBack to top ▲

Police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters - European arrest warrant - Surrender procedures between Member States - Decisions rendered at the end of proceedings in which the person concerned has not appeared in person - Execution of a sentence pronounced in absentia - Possibility of review of the judgment.

The case concerned the surrender of a person who had been convicted in absentia. The Spanish Constitutional Court made a preliminary reference regarding the interpretation and validity of Article 4a(1) of the Framework Decision on the European arrest warrant (EAW) and the interpretation of Charter Article 53.

According to the constitutional court's interpretation of Article 24(2) of the Spanish Constitution, the surrender of a person who has been condemned in absentia, without conditioning the surrender to the possibility to obtain a retrial, would violate the right to a fair trial. This interpretation clashed with the obligations stemming under the Framework Decision, and particularly Article 4a(1), which did not allow rejecting the execution of the EAW in the circumstances of the case.

Summary Facts Of The CaseBack to top ▲

Mr. Melloni had been condemned in absentia in Italy to ten years’ imprisonment for the crime of bankruptcy fraud. Throughout the trial, he had been represented by two lawyers of his choice. An EAW for the execution of the sentence was issued and four years later he was detained in Spain. The competent Court decided to execute the EAW, but Mr. Melloni submitted a complaint (amparo) before the Constitutional Court arguing that his surrender would amount to a breach of the right to a fair trial. 

The Constitutional Court decided to stay proceedings and make a reference to the CJEU regarding the interpretation and validity of Article 4a(1) of the Framework Decision in light of Charter Articles 47 and 48(2) and the interpretation of Charter Article 53.

The CJEU confirmed the validity of the Framework Decision under Articles 47 and 48(2) of the Charter. The CJEU referred to the ECtHR case law and concluded that the right to appear in person at the trial was not an absolute right and that the accused may waive that right, expressly or tacitly, under certain conditions. 

Regarding Charter Article 53, the CJEU acknowledged that state courts may apply national standards of protection of fundamental rights in reviewing national implementing measures, as long as the level of protection provided for by the Charter, and the primacy, unity and effectiveness of EU law are not compromised.

In the resolution of the case, the Constitutional Court referred to the Charter as a hermeneutic criterion for the interpretation of Article 24(2) of the Constitution. Hence, the Charter was not directly enforced, but the Constitutional Court followed the interpretation given by the CJEU to overrule the previous constitutional interpretation of the right to a fair trial. 

 
Relation to the scope of the CharterBack to top ▲

This case was within the scope of EU law and hence within the scope of the Charter pursuant to Article 51(1) therein, since the national legislation on the EAW implements the corresponding Framework Decision. The Charter was used as a hermeneutic tool.

Article 47: Right to an effective judicial remedy and fair trial  

Article 48(2): Right of defence

Relation between the Charter and EHCRBack to top ▲
The Constitutional Court argued that constitutional fundamental rights need to be interpreted according to both the ECHR and the Charter, and quoted decisions from the ECtHR (Sejdovic v Italy, 1 March 2006) and the CJEU (C-399/11, Melloni).
Notes on judicial interactions dimensionBack to top ▲

Vertical Judicial Interaction

For the first time, the Constitutional Court submitted a preliminary reference. Following the CJEU ruling, the Constitutional Court reversed the previous interpretation of the constitutional right to a fair trial. At the same time, the Constitutional Court reduced the impact of the Charter to being a hermeneutic criterion for the interpretation of the Constitution, in the same way as the ECHR. The Constitutional Court argued that constitutional rights had to be interpreted according to international human rights treaties. The Court explicitly referred to the ECHR and the Charter, and the respective case law. In particular, the Constitutional Court quoted Sejdovic v Italy and Melloni in order to interpret the constitutional right to a fair trial regarding the surrender of people condemned in absentia.

Strategic use of judicial interaction 

The Constitutional Court made use of the preliminary reference to confront the conflict between the settled constitutional interpretation of the right to a fair trial and the obligations stemming from the Framework Decision on the EAW. The level of protection granted by the Spanish Constitution to the right to a fair trial was higher than the protection granted under EU law. The Constitutional Court challenged the validity of the Framework Decision in light of the Charter, but the CJEU held that the Framework Decision was compatible with Charter Articles 47 and 48(2). 

Also, the Constitutional Court made a question about Charter Article 53, to explore the extent to which this Article would allow for the enforcement of more protective constitutional rights. The CJEU acknowledged that possibility, as long as, the primacy, unity and effectiveness of EU law were not undermined. In this case, the CJEU held that the enforcement of the constitutional standard would undermine the effectiveness and uniformity of EU law. 

Impact on JurisprudenceBack to top ▲
The preliminary ruling triggered the reversal of the settled constitutional interpretation of the right to a fair trial to lower the standard of protection, not only in the field of the EAW, but regarding extradition more generally.
Sources - EU and national lawBack to top ▲

EU law 

Council Framework Decision 2009/299/JHA of 26 Feb. 2009 amending Framework Decisions 2002/584/JHA, 2005/214/JHA, 2006/783/JHA, 2008/909/JHA and 2008/947/JHA, thereby enhancing the procedural rights of persons and fostering the application of the principle of mutual recognition to decisions rendered in the absence of the person concerned at the trial.

National Law
Article 24(2) Spanish Constitution

Sources - CJEU Case LawBack to top ▲

The decision is the national follow up of Case C-399/11, Stefano Melloni v. Ministerio Fiscal, 26 February 2013