Co Tipperary farmer Patrick Quirke has won an important Supreme Court victory in attempt to overturn his conviction for the 2011 murder of Bobby Ryan, a DJ known as ‘Mr Moonlight’.
The court decided Quirke is entitled to a declaration that a computer was unlawfully seized from his home under a search warrant obtained by gardaí. This computer, the prosecution told Quirke’s trial, was used for internet searches on the rate of decomposition of human remains and the limitations of forensic DNA.
The court held that while a computer could be lawfully seized as a physical object, a search of its content was not permitted because that involved a further intrusion into digital space which was neither looked for in the sworn information seeking the warrant nor authorised by the judge who issued it.
The Supreme Court will hear submissions on a later date from lawyers for Quirke and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) concerning the consequences of the court’s decision. Quirke was not in court on Monday when the seven-judge court delivered its unanimous judgment on his appeal.
The appeal centred on two issues - the scope of the warrant under which electronic devices were seized from Quirke’s home; and the DPP’s discretion regarding the calling of pathology witnesses. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission made submissions in the appeal on legal issues surrounding the reach of the warrant.
Quirke was arrested after Mr Ryan’s remains were found in a disused underground tank on a farm at Fawnagowan owned by Mary Lowry on April 30th, 2013, almost two years after he went missing.
Mr Ryan had been in a relationship with Ms Lowry and was last seen alive as he left her home early on June 3rd, 2011. The prosecution argued at Quirke’s trial in 2019 that circumstantial evidence validly established that he had murdered Mr Ryan.
It was contended that Quirke had staged the discovery of the body as he was about to give up his lease on the farm and feared he would be found out. The prosecution argued Quirke had murdered Mr Ryan so he could rekindle an affair with Ms Lowry.
Quirke denied the murder charge and, when he lost an appeal to the Court of Appeal against his conviction, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a further appeal because of the importance of the issues raised.
Giving the Supreme Court’s judgment, Mr Justice Peter Charleton said gardaí had obtained a warrant from the District Court, under section 6 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, to search Quirke’s home.
That led to the seizure of, among other items, various computer devices which were searched to obtain evidence relied upon by the prosecution at trial. Quirke argued that material was crucial to his conviction in the Central Criminal Court.
In his appeal, Quirke’s case was that the sworn information leading to the warrant being granted did not include any reference to electronic devices or computers and stated only that gardaí intended to seize personal items of the deceased, Mr Ryan, and “any other relevant evidence” found on the premises.
While a physical analysis of a computer device was permitted to search for the personal effects of a crime victim (as specified by the gardaí in seeking the warrant), its use as a portal into the digital world, thereby leading to a “more significant” intrusion into the privacy rights of the accused, was unlawful in the absence of sufficient judicial analysis before the search was authorised, he held.
That judicial analysis could have been obtained through a “clear reference” to computer devices in the sworn information provided to the judge issuing the warrant, along with a sworn statement indicating why such a digital search might be reasonably needed, the judge outlined.
The court allowed the appeal on the ground of the lawfulness of the search because neither the warrant itself, nor the sworn information on foot of which it was applied for, made any reference to digital devices.
Mr Justice Charleton said the definition of place in the relevant law, the 2006 Act, was specific to physical places and therefore could not be extended or altered to include digital spaces, such as the computers seized in this case.
The judge stressed the importance of having an independent mind, such as that of a District Court judge, when it comes to the proper exercise of policing powers concerning such warrants. This was particularly so where there is a search of a family dwelling.
Privacy interests engaged in relation to computer searches are “significantly greater” than those arising where a physical object is searched. In Quirke’s case, the failure to include computerised searches in the sworn information for the warrant involved a failure to consider and respect his privacy rights and those communicating with, or through, him, he said.
The judge stressed that search warrants are “essential” instruments for investigation and prosecution but said protections are also necessary through the intervention of independent analysis of the evidence and information provided, which “cannot be reduced to a ‘rubber stamp’”.
In this case, there was insufficient judicial analysis to enable the entry into the digital space through the analyses of the computers seized, he held.
He dismissed the second ground of appeal concerning the DPP’s failure to call pathology evidence from one expert whose report differed in some ways from the reports of three other experts. All four experts agreed the cause of Mr Ryan’s death was blunt force trauma.
One expert, who was not called by the DPP, said the cause of that trauma could be vehicular impact trauma. The expert called by the DPP accepted this was possible but testified there was no evidence to support that proposition.
Mr Justice Charleton said, generally, the prosecution should call relevant evidence as set out in the book of evidence served on the accused but may be entitled not to call that evidence.
In such circumstances, the trial remains fair provided the defence was notice of the witnesses available and is entitled to call their own witnesses, or to call witnesses not called by the prosecution.
On that basis, he said the trial judge’s ruling in permitting the DPP not to call contradictory pathology evidence to the prosecution theory was within the trial judge’s discretion.