14,700 convictions are to be overturned in Ireland of people who were falsely prosecuted after paying a fine to avoid criminal prosecution for a driving related offense.
In Ireland citations for more than 60 traffic related offenses can be disposed of by admitting guilt and paying a fine within 56 days of a “Fixed Charge” notice being mailed to a driver. Upon payment of the fine driving penalty points are assessed based on the seriousness of the offense. The penalty points for offenses range from 1 to 3. A person is disqualified from driving for a period of time after accumulating 12 or more points.
If a person does not admit guilt and pay the fine within 56 days, a criminal prosecution is commenced with the issuance by mail of a summons to appear in court. Conviction results in assessment of up to three times more driving penalty points than if guilt is admitted and the fine been paid within 56 days.
In April 2016 it was discovered that a person summoned to appear before the court had already paid the Fixed Charge Notice for failing to have an National Car Test certificate. The Garda Síochána, Ireland’s National Police Service, which is in charge of mailing out fixed charge notices, initiated an investigation.
On March 23, 2017 the Garda issued a statement disclosing that between 2008 and 2016, 14,700 people were criminally prosecuted, convicted in absentia, and assessed penalty points, after they had already paid the “Fixed Charge” notice fine within 56 days and been assessed penalty points. The people had not been mailed a summons to appear in court, and were found guilty after failing to appear to defend themselves.
The Garda acknowledged that the convictions and sanctions imposed on all of those people had to be set-aside because there was no lawful basis for their prosecution. The Garda acknowledged it was responsible for the situation, and began mailing registered letters to affected drivers. As of mid-July 9,380 letters had been sent out.
However, since each conviction must be separately appealed, as of mid-August 2017 only one conviction had been overturned. In that case the driver hired a lawyer and the court awarded the defendant costs “to the value of legal aid.”
Sinn Féin justice spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said it was “astonishing” only one case had been through the courts, and “the whole thing has been a mess from day one.” He said that delays in the Garda notifying all the persons affected was ironic, because “it was a private company that sent out these fixed-penalty notices and that company should have a list of all the drivers.”
The Garda contracted with the private company to send out notices related to traffic offenses. It isn’t known if the Irish government will have legal recourse against the company to recover the costs associated with correcting the 14,700 erroneous convictions. It is estimated that the total cost will run into millions of Euros. As of August 19, 1 Euro was equal to $1.18.
The Policing Authority was established in 2015 as an independent body to oversee the performance of the Garda Síochána in relation to policing services in Ireland. In response to the wrongful conviction scandal the Authority stated on its website that since June 2016 it has “repeatedly asked questions about possible wrongful prosecution and conviction of people who had already paid a fixed charged penalty.”
At the same time as the Garda disclosed the wrongful conviction scandal, it also disclosed that a review of roadside alcohol breath tests found that the Medical Bureau of Road Safety recorded 1,058,157 tests had been carried out during the five years from 2011 to 2016, while the Garda’s website stated 1,995,369 tests had been conducted. Ireland’s Assistant Commissioner in Charge of Policing, Michael Finn, commented to the The Irish Sun about the inflated number of tests reported by the Garda, “The numbers don’t add up. I can’t say who’s responsible for this.”
In response to the breath test scandal the Policing Authority issued a statement that, it “is alarmed at the scale of the discrepancies disclosed between actual alcohol tests administered and the numbers recorded by Gardaí. This is not just an academic statistical matter, it is an ethical one. It raises serious questions of integrity for the Garda Síochána organisation and combined with previous issues regarding inflated activity levels, erodes confidence in the credibility of Garda data generally.”
There have been no significant changes in the Garda since public disclosure in March 2017 of the 14,700 wrongful convictions it was responsible for causing, and the grossly inflated breath test data on its website.
Picture: Garda Síochána logo