Judge dismisses case against man stopped at Covid checkpoint at start of pandemic
Posted on 20th January 2022 at 21:34
Garda had no statutory power to operate Covid checkpoints at the time, defence argued
A judge has dismissed a case against a man stopped at a Covid checkpoint at the start of the pandemic after ruling gardaí had no powers to use checkpoints to enforce public health advice.
Christopher Benson was stopped in Co Monaghan on April 2nd, weeks after the pandemic had taken hold in Ireland but before the introduction of laws restricting non-essential travel.
During the traffic stop Mr Benson was arrested under public order legislation for allegedly refusing to comply with a garda’s directions and engaging in threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.
However, his lawyers successfully argued this week that because the Covid checkpoint had no basis in law at that point, the subsequent arrest was unlawful.
Judge Raymond Finnegan dismissed the case in Monaghan District Court on Monday.
It is understood that a number of similar cases, where charges were brought against people stopped at Covid checkpoints prior to travel restrictions being grounded in law, have already been withdrawn or discontinued by the State over the last 18 months.
Mr Benson, from Kilkerly, Co Louth, was stopped by gardaí at Annahale, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. At the time there had been 3,849 cases of Covid reported and 98 deaths. People were being urged to avoid non-essential travel and legislation had been drafted allowing gardaí to enforce travel restrictions.
However, this legislation was not activated until April 7th, five days after the traffic stop.
In a submission to the court, defence solicitor Ciarán Mulholland said gardaí had used an “unlawful Covid checkpoint” to “indirectly enforce public health advice” without any statutory basis.
He said that normally gardaí can only exercise their powers when “a probable cause, genuine opinion or reasonable suspicion is present”. He said it is clear no such powers existed at the time.
Although previous case law has established that gardaí can approach members of the public informally to make inquiries, this does not apply to traffic stops, Mr Mulholland said.
The defence applied for the matter to be referred to the High Court for it to provide clarity on the law. However, Judge Finnegan opted to strike out the case completely.
Speaking after the ruling, Mr Mulholland called the State’s approach to the case “a shambles”.
“Whilst this may be the first case of its kind in the State whereby this ruling has now been handed down, this is by no means the only case in which citizens were subject to gardaí acting ultra vires during this pandemic.
“This Covid pandemic is exceptional but the rule of law is not. Gardaí must adhere to the law.”
The ruling is unlikely to have any influence on incidents which occurred after April 7th, by which time the legislative provisions had been activated.
To date over 23,000 fines have been issued for breaches of Covid-19 regulations, the majority of which were issued to people leaving their homes without a reasonable excuse during lockdown. As of last month, 52 per cent of fines have not been paid.
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