Death of an individual suffering from psychiatric disorders who was the victim of ill-treatment during a police operation (ECHR)

In the European Court of Human Rights' judgment of 16.11.2017 in the case of Boukrourou and Others v. France (application no. 30059/15) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been: no violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment).
Facts: The applicants, Abdelkader Boukrourou, Samira Boukrourou, Fatiha Boukrourou, Karim Boukrourou, Lahoucin Boukrourou and Yamina Hassioui, are French nationals who were born in 1970, 1977, 1973, 1972, 1938 and 1951 respectively and live in Mouroux, Massy, Valentigney and Thaulay (France) respectively. On 12 November 2009 M.B. went to a pharmacy in Valentigney where he habitually collected his medication for psychiatric disorders. The pharmacists refused to exchange medication with which M.B. was dissatisfied, and he became angry, raising his voice and making incoherent statements; he told them that he was going to file a complaint and refused to leave the premises. Four police officers arrived on the scene at 4.53 p.m. and asked him several times to exit the pharmacy. Since he continued to refuse, they decided to force him out. They seized him by the arm and leg, but he fell on to the ground at the doorstep to the pharmacy.
The police officers then attempted to handcuff him, one of them punching M.B. twice on the solar plexus. He was finally handcuffed and then pushed into the police van, where he continued to struggle before falling face down. The police officers applied pressure to his shoulders, legs and buttocks, continuing in that position even after he had been fastened to a fixed point on the back seat of the van. At 4.58 p.m. the police officers requested the assistance of the fire brigade and the emergency medical service. M.B., who had stopped breathing for a time, was taken charge of by the fire brigade, who had arrived at 5.07 p.m., and who eventually transported him inside the pharmacy. Noting the absence of blood circulation, the fire brigade carried out cardiac massage.
An emergency doctor administered specialist cardiopulmonary reanimation, but recorded M.B.’s death at 6.02 p.m. An investigation was initiated immediately. Hearings were conducted and an autopsy carried out on 13 November 2009. The forensic doctor concluded that the death had clearly been caused by heart failure brought on by M.B.’s state of stress and agitation. Witnesses were heard and further expert assessments carried out. On 25 November 2011 the Ombudsperson, to whom a member of parliament had submitted the case, submitted his report.
In March 2012 the four police officers who had arrested M.B were formally charged with manslaughter consequent upon the manifestly deliberate violation of the legal or statutory duty of caution and security. In December 2012 the investigating judges issued a discontinuance decision, finding, in particular, that the force used by the police officers had been necessary and proportionate. In October 2013 the Investigations Division of the Court of Appeal upheld that decision, and in November 2014 the applicants’ appeal on points of law was dismissed.
Relying on Article 2 (right to life) and Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman treatment), the applicants alleged a violation of M.B.’s right to life and complained of the inhuman and degrading treatment inflicted on the latter. The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 18 May 2015.
Decision of the Court: Article 2 (right to life): As regards the causal link between the force used and M.B.’s death: having regard to the information at its disposal, the Court noted that the police officers had not used intrinsically lethal force against M.B. All the forensic reports ruled out death by chest compression, while noting that M.B. had unwittingly been suffering from atherosclerotic coronary heart disease with approximately 70 % stenosis. According to the experts, M.B. had died suddenly of cardiac rhythm disorders owing to a coronary spasm triggered by a context of intense and prolonged emotional and physical stress, in a subject suffering from an atheromatous attack on an artery of the heart. Furthermore, even though the police operation had created additional tension, M.B. had already been highly overwrought on his arrival at the pharmacy, long before the police had intervened. Finally, he had suffered from a serious psychiatric pathology, that is to say a delusional psychosis, which had explained both the initial altercation with the pharmacist and his state of extreme agitation when the police officers had attempted to induce him to leave the pharmacy, as their intervention could have been interpreted “in a delusional manner”, to quote the psychiatric expert.
The Court noted that although there was some causal link between the force used by the police officers and M.B.’s death, that consequence had not been foreseeable. Even though the police officers had known that M.B. was undergoing psychiatric treatment, they were unaware of his heart disease. They therefore could not have envisaged the existence of any danger incurred by the combination of those two factors – stress and heart disease – liable to present a risk to the victim. As regards the obligation to protect M.B.’s life: owing to his psychiatric illness, M.B. had been in a vulnerable situation and the police officers had had a duty to ensure his state of health, as he had been forcibly placed under their responsibility.
In that connection, in the light of the facts which were noted by the domestic courts and not contested by the parties, the Court considered that the police officers’ swift request for assistance and the rapid arrival of the emergency services on the scene enabled any failure by the authorities in their obligation to protect M.B.’s life to be ruled out. Consequently, the Court held that there had been no violation of Article 2 of the Convention.
Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment): The Court noted that internal investigations had established that the injuries to M.B.’s body as noted by the medical experts had indeed been caused by the police officers during his arrest. In response to M.B.’s refusal to leave the pharmacy, the police officers had moved directly to coercion mode, attempting to drag him out by force, even though that had been unnecessary.
Subsequently, he had been punched twice on the solar plexus: in fact, the violence of the punches, as attested by the autopsy report, only intensified M.B.’s agitation and resistance, reinforcing his feeling of exasperation and incomprehension as to the course of events. Such treatment inflicted on a vulnerable person who had clearly not understood what the police officers were doing had been neither justified nor strictly necessary. Lastly, once inside the police van, M.B. had been kept face downwards, handcuffed to a fixed point and with three police officers standing with their full weight on various parts of his body. Despite M.B.’s vulnerable situation owing both to his psychiatric illness and to his status as a person deprived of his liberty, he had been literally trampled underfoot by the police inside the van.
The Court did, however, note that there was nothing to suggest that the violence inflicted on M.B had stemmed from any intention on the police officers’ part to humiliate him or make him suffer, but could be explained by a lack of preparedness, appropriate training and/or equipment. The Court considered that the repeated and inefficacious violent acts against a vulnerable person constituted an infringement of human dignity and attained a severity threshold rendering them incompatible with Article 3 of the Convention. It therefore found a violation.
Just satisfaction (Article 41): The Court held that France was to pay, in respect of non-pecuniary damage, the applicants Fatiha Boukrourou, Yamina Hassioui and Lahoucin Boukrourou 6,000 euros (EUR) each, and EUR 4,000 to each of the applicants Samira Boukrourou, Abdelkader Boukrourou and Karim Boukrourou. It was also to pay EUR 18,576 jointly to the applicants in respect of costs and expenses.