Although it could be a subject of long philosophical debates, it is still a fact: material possessions have a high priority in our life. However, the state has the right to restrict property. In extreme cases it can deprive us of our property, causing a lot of harm and distress or even ruin our lives or at least our business completely. Just think about the extensive powers of the authorities – the Tax Authority can withhold reclaimed VAT for years, the criminal investigation authorities can seize valuable cars, electronic devices, etc. Sadly, in numerous cases they do it without any grounds. However, if it happens without a good reason we do not have to put up with it silently, as it was shown by the of Strasbourg in its recently adopted case
The hero of the Gyrlyan case sold a valuable house near Moscow completely legally and he exchanged part of the purchase price into 100 thousand dollars. He wanted to take the money to Odessa, but at the border 90 thousand dollars were confiscated from him because he “failed to declare in advance” the movement of the cash. (Russian law provided that every cross-border movement of cash exceeding 10 thousand dollars must be reported in advance.) Despite the fact that Mr Gyrlyan caused no harm other than failing to observe the reporting obligation, he never saw his money again and his appeals were unsuccessful.
The ECHR reprimanded Russia for violating Mr Gyrlyan’s right to property. The Court declared that a state could have a legitimate right to combat money laundering and other criminal activities. However, these aims do not justify every restriction of rights, in other words there must be a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised. Consequently, one cannot seize something just because its owner is suspected to have violated the law. Hypothetical, unsubstantiated suspicion is not enough – a concrete, materialised illegal activity is needed to justify the deprivation of property.
In the actual case this was decisive. Mr Gyrlyan was undisputedly an honest man who sold a valuable real estate completely legally. It is true that he forgot to declare in advance the cash he was carrying across the border. This however did not cause any harm to anybody, it did not defraud the state budget of even a penny. It goes without saying that administrative obligations must be met (even if they seem irrational at first glance), however, the failure to do so cannot result in almost total deprivation of rights and property. The breach of legal technicalities, if it does not cause or barely causes any real harm, cannot go hand in hand with serious sanctions and heavy financial penalties.
Therefore, if the state treats us with excessive severity for failing to meet certain legal formalities, we do not have to endure the harassment of the authorities in silence. There is a judicial body out there, the European Court of Human Rights, who listens to such complaints with great understanding…