JUDGE James McNulty has held there was nothing untoward in the manner in which three gardaí arrested a homeless woman found asleep in a car at Toe Head.
The accused, Elaine Burns (46) of no fixed abode, pleaded not guilty through her solicitor, Ray Hennessy, to a charge of obstructing Gda John O’Sullivan; and a charge of being threatening and abusive towards the garda at around 9am on the morning of June 9th 2018.
In evidence at Skibbereen District Court, Gda O’Sullivan said he saw empty vodka bottles on the ground as he approached the car parked on the beach at Toe Head.
He said he found Elaine Burns asleep inside the car and when she got out she was unsteady on her feet. He said she told him she had been made homeless.
The garda noted that the insurance, NCT and tax was out on the car and it was subsequently seized.
Gda O’Sullivan described the accused’s demeanour that morning as ‘belligerent’ and after about 30 minutes he said he arrested her, placed her in the patrol car, and brought her to Clonakilty Garda Station.
The garda said the accused had to be handcuffed, that she had been kicking out, and making threats against the gardaí.
In cross-examination by Mr Hennessy he put it to the garda that his client had done nothing wrong and that the gardaí had made a bad situation worse.
He repeatedly asked: ‘What was she doing that was unlawful?’ Gda O’Sullivan reminded the solicitor that they were responding to a call they had received from a member of the public, that they had a duty of care, and that they were also concerned because West Cork was experiencing a heatwave.
The solicitor questioned the garda about the handling of his client’s dog – a deaf, blind dog with dementia called Rodney - but the garda said he had no recollection of a dog.
According to the solicitor, it was his client’s concern about her ailing dog being left behind in such hot weather that caused her to be belligerent in the first place.
He also expressed his ‘amazement’ that the other two members of the gardaí were not in court to corroborate Gda O’Sullivan’s evidence.
When the accused was called to give evidence, Mr Hennessy asked her to produce photographs on her phone, which showed bruising to her wrists and upper arm.
The case was left stand for the gardaí to produce the official custody record and in the afternoon, Judge McNulty noted that the accused had, while in custody, requested a doctor, who duly examined her, and found ‘no medical issues.’ Mr Hennessy interjected and asked what that meant. He also asked why the same doctor prescribed Xanax for his client.
In summing up, the solicitor also noted that Gda O’Sullivan had given his client the name and number of the woman who took care of Rodney while she was in custody.
In evidence, Elaine Burns outlined her personal circumstances saying that she was evicted from her rented accommodation in February after she had spent some time in hospital.
She said she went to stay with a friend as a kind of carer but when that person approached her with a used syringe she fled the house with her dog.
Elaine Burns said it was because she couldn’t find a hostel that would take her dog that she ended up sleeping in the car and she admitted she was belligerent about the dog.
She told the court about her medical conditions and the fact that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she never had any dealings with the gardaí before, and didn’t understand what was happening, including the offer of an adult caution.
Despite claims that she had failed to keep an appointment for the administering of an adult caution in August, the State prosecutor subsequently acknowledged that the request for the appointment had been made verbally, and was not formally recorded, as is required by law.
Judge McNulty said: ‘The court has a duty to ask questions where there is any suggestion, or suspicion, that a person might have been harmed while in custody.’
He said the bruises on the accused’s wrists could have been from the handcuffs and the bruise on her upper arm from ‘a firm hand when she was being placed under arrest.’
The judge said: ‘The court has no concerns about brutality or the physical abuse of a prisoner. The accused was treated respectfully and properly in garda custody and I am satisfied that her offending was connected to her deep distress.’
The judge said he would deal with the case by way of a conditional discharge, which means the accused would be placed on a probation bond for one year. But Mr Hennessy said the judge’s verdict would be appealed to the Circuit Court and he commented: ‘For something that was to be dealt with by adult caution, the outcome is extraordinary.’