Catch your breath: what you need to know about latest Garda crisis
Why is breath test issue such a big deal and what is likely to happen next?
It is thought the State will face a huge legal bill arising from prosecuted cases, which should never have proceeded.
Q. What is all the controversy surrounding An Garda Síochána about, exactly?
A. Well, two distinct issues have cropped up for Garda management over recent weeks. Firstly, it was revealed last week that almost a million breath tests recorded as being performed by gardaí between late 2011 and 2016 in fact never took place. It was first reported in The Irish Times in February that the number of breath tests recorded on the Garda pulse system appeared significantly higher than the number of motorists tested David Labanyi reported that and that the operation of drink-driving checkpoints was as a result being audited.
Separately, gardaí also admitted last week that 147,000 motorists were wrongly summoned to court for road traffic infringements after they had already paid fixed charge notices. Around 14,700 convictions arose from the cases, all of which will have to be retrospectively challenged by gardaí at substantial cost to the taxpayer.
Q. Why is the breath test issue such a big deal?
A. Politicians and the relevant authorities, as well as members of the public, are perplexed as to the scale of the error: one million breath tests were actually taken over the four-year period, yet this figure was somehow exaggerated by more than 100 per cent to two million.
After being tipped off by anonymous letter-writer to the Road Safety Authority in 2014 about issues with checkpoints in the west of the country, the Garda started looking into how alcohol testing checkpoints were being monitored.
An audit of breath tests in the Garda’s southern region between 2009 and 2014 found a 17 per cent discrepancy between the figures on the Garda Pulse electronic system and the number of breath-tests recorded on the breath-testing devices.
Prof Denis Cusack, head of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, told The Irish Times last week that the bureau alerted the Garda in July 2014 that the number of breath tests the Garda was claiming to carry out was higher than the number of disposable plastic mouthpieces purchased and needed for each test and that there was a discrepancy between the Garda’s test figures on its website.
Assistant Commissioner Finn said that the bureau wrote to the Garda simply to ask whether they needed any additional testing machines, mouthpieces or related equipment and that they replied to say that they had enough stock.
“The letter from Prof Cusack does not go beyond that,” he said, adding that there was no reference to the Garda’s own data.
To make matters worse, the Policing Authority which is responsible for oversight of An Garda Síochána was only made aware of the issue last month when it was first reported by The Irish Times. Deputy Commissioner John Twomey said that the authority was not informed “due to an administrative error on my behalf.”
Q. How could they possibly have got the figures so wrong?
A. The short answer is: no one really seems to know, least of all Garda management. Theories for the existence of the almost one million phantom test records range from lax recording procedures by gardaí in stations around the country, accidental overestimations of the number of tests carried out or, more seriously, a deliberate ploy by some members of the force to inflate road enforcement figures so they look more impressive. “We know what happened,” said Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn in charge of the Garda National Roads Policing Bureau.
“We don’t know how exactly it happened.”
Q. How did the issue of prosecutions come to light?
A. Whereas the revelations about breath testing figures were prompted by earlier media reports, it appears Garda management saw it as a good opportunity to come clean about the wrongful prosecutions issue as well.
The Garda first became aware of a problem with the issuing of summonses in February 2016 concerning a case involving the NCT. The bulk of the 146,865 wrongly issued summonses related to the failure to display a tax disc (68,664) or insurance disc (42,462).
The Department of Justice was notified in June 2016. The issue is discussed by the Garda with the Policing Authority at the end of that month.
There were contacts between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Garda in July and November 2016 and two weeks ago the DPP advised that any convictions obtained on the back of the wrongful summonses must be appealed to the Circuit Court.
It is thought the State will face a legal bill amounting to tens of millions of euro arising from the prosecuted cases, which gardaí admit should never have proceeded following the payment of fixed charge notices by the motorists involved.
On top of the basic cost of lodging appeals, people who experienced material loss attached to their wrongful conviction, such as increases to insurance premiums or loss of employment, may seek to sue for damages.
Q. What will happen if you have been drawn into this mess?
A. The Garda will write to you and explain what happened and how it proposes to rectify the situation. Do nothing until you hear from them.
Any fines imposed will be reimbursed and all records involved will be corrected. The Garda plans to set up a support helpline for any questions.
Q. Could this happen again?
A. The Garda says that as of July 15th, 2016 it changed its IT systems that prevents summonses being created when a fixed-charged notice has been issued. Assistant Commissioner Finn has said that the problem arose due to “largely human error” but that a process was put in place stopping a summons being issued for a fixed-charge notice relating to a road traffic offence.
Q. What does the Garda Commissioner have to say about all of this?
A. Nóirín O’Sullivan released a statement on Saturday in which she described the findings as “totally unacceptable and not in keeping with the standards of a modern and professional policing service”. Commentators have accused her of shirking responsibility for the controversies and laying the blame on lower-ranking members of the force.
On Monday at a press conference she said there is no doubt this is a very, very serious issue. “We have potentially very very serious ethical issues here.”
She said An Garda Siochana have to “get to the bottom” of what happened, and did not reply when asked if investigations into the discrepancies in the system are criminal. She said it is about “fact finding”.
Q. So what happens next?
A. The combined controversies have created an undeniably fraught atmosphere for Nóirín O’Sullivan, whose leadership of An Garda Síochána will be subject to a no confidence motion by Sinn Féin.
She is due to face questions from TDs at an Oireachtas Justice Committee meeting on Wednesday, while Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said on Sunday his party’s confidence in the Commissioner was contingent on her providing a more detailed statement on the scandals within 48 hours.