Posting a photo of a thief on social media can get expensive

The Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that posting a photo of the thief on a social networking site is illegal. According to the court, this cannot be done by the injured businessman, but only by the state body guaranteeing security, i.e. the Police of the Czech Republic. The court thus indirectly prioritised the personal rights of the thief over the property rights of the businessman.

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In November 2011, a thief stole an expensive electric bicycle from a Prague shop. However, the shop owner had the entire theft filmed on an industrial camera. He posted a photo of the thief on his Facebook page and asked the public to share it and help in the search. His efforts were successful and thanks to the posting, the thief was indeed caught and the bike was recovered.

The fine from the authority

However, the Data Protection Authority fined the entrepreneur CZK 5,000 in April 2012. The authority did not mind so much the fact that the picture of the thief was taken. It was the publication on Facebook that bothered him.

According to the authority, a simple equation applies, the footage is only for internal use and for the police, who paradoxically can already publish it. The publication is said to be contrary to the purpose of taking the footage.

Municipal court intervenes

However, the Municipal Court in Prague disagreed with this conclusion and quashed the fine. According to the court, the authority did not actually state on what grounds it considered the processing of data in the form of publishing a photograph on Facebook to be contrary to the purpose for which the data was collected.

The purpose is, of course, the protection of property, which was perfectly achieved by the publication when the bicycle was found in one of the bazaars in Prague 8 and the perpetrator was caught and convicted.

In this context, according to the court, the key issue is to assess the question of proportionality and balance the right to protection of the thief’s personal data against the right of the shop owner to protect his own property. The City Court takes a bit of a dig at the Data Protection Authority, which it says places the privacy of the offender above the right of the owner to protect his own property. The court itself sees it exactly the opposite way. Moreover, the fact that the thief was stealing, even though he knew he was being filmed and didn’t care, led the court to logically prioritize the business owner’s right.

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Supreme Administrative Court “strikes back”

The Office for Personal Data Protection has filed a cassation complaint against this decision. It insisted that in a democratic state governed by the rule of law, it is the role of the police, not the aggrieved trader, to catch the perpetrators of crimes. The latter is only supposed to hand over the records to the police and respect the presumption of innocence until the court decides.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Administrative Court also agreed with this reasoning. According to the Supreme Administrative Court, in the given situation there is no conflict between the right to protect the property of the businessman and the right to protect the personal data of the thief and there is nothing to compare. The law itself supposedly determines the boundaries between the right to protection of property on the one hand and the right to protection of personal data on the other.

The latest judgment therefore suggests that you can be fined if you post a thief’s personal data on Facebook, even if he is later convicted because of it. However, it is possible that the Constitutional Court will reverse the whole thing later on.

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Author of the article

JUDr. Ondřej Preuss, Ph.D.

Ondřej is the attorney who came up with the idea of providing legal services online. He's been earning his living through legal services for more than 10 years. He especially likes to help clients who may have given up hope in solving their legal issues at work, for example with real estate transfers or copyright licenses.

  • Law, Ph.D, Pf UK in Prague
  • Law, L’université Nancy-II, Nancy
  • Law, Master’s degree (Mgr.), Pf UK in Prague
  • International Territorial Studies (Bc.), FSV UK in Prague

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