Garda discretion under spotlight after verbal warning for Hogan

Force did not issue fine or other punishment after European Commissioner stopped for using phone while driving

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris briefed the Government on the incident in which European Commissioner Phil Hogan was stopped by gardaí in Kildare for using his phone while driving. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris briefed the Government on the incident in which European Commissioner Phil Hogan was stopped by gardaí in Kildare for using his phone while driving. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

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Gardaí are entitled to use discretion when stopping someone for mobile phone use while driving but its use remains controversial within the organisation.

On Sunday it emerged European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan was stopped by gardaí in Kildare for using his phone while driving to the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society event in Galway last week.

It is understood the Garda involved did not issue a fine or other punishment for the offence and instead used their discretion to issue a verbal warning, a record of which was entered on the Garda Pulse system.

News of the incident has added to widespread anger over the controversy which has become known as Golfgate.

“Imagine the damaging road message drivers are getting today. Road safety need not apply to the powers that be,” said Susan Gray of the road safety group Parc. “This is happening time and time again and we are thoroughly fed up with it.”

Garda Headquarters said on Monday, “without commenting on any specific incident”, that gardaí can use discretion in such matters and that this is provided for in the Garda code of ethics.

This appears to somewhat clash with the current campaign from the Road Safety Authority, whose radio advertisements warn: “There’s no legal limit for mobile phone use. No ifs, no buts, no excuses.”

A spokesman for the RSA said it does not comment on individual cases but pointed to the fact that using a mobile “makes you four times more likely to be involved in a crash”.

Gardaí who spoke to The Irish Times on Monday gave differing interpretations of the use of discretion.

One said discretion in road traffic matters should be used only in emergencies, such as someone caught speeding to a hospital in a medical emergency.

Another said that mobile phone use while driving is regarded as a “life saver offence” and gardaí are encouraged to pursue it “aggressively”.

“There is huge pressure on gardaí, especially traffic members, to get those detections,” he said.

A garda in the west had a wider understanding of discretion. “If I stop you using a mobile briefly and you’re a safe enough driver and you weren’t driving past a school or something like that, you could be let off with a caution that would be recorded on Pulse.”

All gardaí said there are no written rules regarding the use of discretion in such cases and that it is down to “common sense”.

One garda said they were surprised Mr Hogan escaped with a caution as members of the Naas traffic unit have a reputation for strictly enforcing road traffic laws.

Briefing

Separately, it has emerged Garda Commissioner Drew Harris briefed the Government on the matter under a controversial section of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which allows the commissioner to pass on a wide range of sensitive information to the Minister for Justice.

Section 41 obliges Mr Harris to brief the Minister on any matter “relevant to the accountability of the Government to the . . . Oireachtas” and on any matter he believes should be brought to the Minister’s attention.

This section has been criticised by policing experts, including Prof Dermot Walsh of Kent University.

“The section conveys the impression that gardaí are out there looking after the Government’s political interests rather than law-enforcement interests,” he told The Irish Times on Monday. “It’s an uncomfortable provision and seems to sum up all that’s wrong with our structures of policing.”

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