A Mayo man charged with withholding information possibly leading to arrest or prosecution of another person in connection with a man’s killing in Sligo has won his High Court challenge to the constitutionality of the law under which he is charged. The High Court yesterday found the legislation allowing someone to be charged with withholding information from the gardaí under the Offences Against the State Act, to be unconstitutional.
Ms Justice Marie Baker gave the ruling in an action taken by Michael Sweeney, of Bog Road, Ballinrobe in Co Mayo, who was a suspect in the investigation into the killing of 23-year-old Tom Ward of Cranmore Drive in Sligo in August 2007.
Mr Sweeney was never charged with the Sligo town killing but in 2011 was charged with withholding information that might have led to the arrest or prosecution of another person in relation to the offence. See link below.
He challenged the constitutionality of the law under which he was charged.
He was due to go on trial in 2014, but those proceedings were put on hold, pending the outcome of this case.
Ms Justice Baker said the relevant legislation - Section 9.1 (b) of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 - offended the constitutional right to remain silent.
She also said it was impermissibly vague and uncertain. However, she postponed making a formal declaration to that effect until 21 December.
The relevant section states a person shall be guilty of an offence if they have information they know or believe might be of assistance in securing the "apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any other person for a serious offence" but fail to disclose it, "as soon as practicable" to the gardaí.
The judge ruled it was constitutionally impermissible to create an offence of remaining silent in regard to the possible commission of an offence by another person.
She said the section essentially made silence, of itself, an offence.
Ms Justice Baker said this section meant a person who was being questioned had to answer questions as failure to do so would expose them to the risk of being convicted of a separate crime.
She also said it may be desirable to have a crime of withholding information, but the wide scope of this legislation created the constitutional difficulty.
Earlier, the judge said Mr Sweeney had become a suspect during the Garda investigation into the killing of Mr Ward at Joe McDonnell Drive, Cranmore, Sligo. Mr Ward was beaten to death outside his parents’ home and died on August 13th 2007.
Mr Sweeney was twice interviewed informally by gardaí before he was arrested and detained for questioning in connection with the killing, she said. He was not charged with the killing but in January 2014 was sent forward for trial under Section 9.1.b.
At no time during his interviews with gardaí was Mr Sweeney told his failure to answer questions could lead to a charge being levied under Section 9.1.b, she said.
Link: Sligo Today 13/6/2011