DPP v Wilson: Re s 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 1984 (admission of adverse inference evidence)

Here, the Supreme Court held that s 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 1984 (admission of adverse inference evidence) “may not be utilised in a trial for an offence other than the offence in respect of which the inference caution was expressly invoked” [50].

 

Background

S 19 of the 1984 Act (as amended by s 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007) (here) allows for an inference to be drawn from a suspect’s failure to account for their presence at a place when an offence was committed.

In 2009, two men entered a house in Blanchardstown, one armed with a meat cleaver and the other with a gun. Two shots were fired. Witnesses at the scene identified Wilson as the one in possession of the meat cleaver.

Gardai arrested Wilson on suspicion of having been involved in the unlawful discharge of a firearm. During questioning, gardai invoked the adverse inferences provision of s 19 of the 1984 Act.

The DPP charged Wilson under s 12(1)(b) of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001. It is alleged that he entered the building as a trespasser and committed an assault causing harm.

At trial before the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, the DPP proposed to rely on s 19 of the 1984 Act. Wilson objected on grounds that he was questioned in relation to the unlawful discharge of a firearm, not assault, and that s 19 cannot be invoked in relation to an offence for which he was not questioned. The trial judge ruled in favour of the DPP. On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial judges decision on grounds that the offences for which Wilson was questioned and charged were inextricably linked. Wilson sought leave to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court.

In this determination (DPP v Wilson), the Supreme Court granted Wilson leave to appeal on “whether the section [s 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 1984] may be utilised in a trial for an offence other than the offence about which the accused was questioned when the section was invoked”.

 

Supreme Court

Chief Justice Denham wrote the main judgment for a unanimous five judge panel; McKechnie J wrote a concurring judgment.

The case raised only an issue of statutory interpretation.

Denham CJ set out An Garda Síochána’s obligations under s 19 and the operation of the adverse inference thereafter:

31. … First, the member concerned must reasonably believe that the presence of the accused at a relevant place and time may be attributable to participation in the commission of “the offence”. Second, the member concerned must inform the accused that he or she is of that belief being a belief that the presence of the accused may be attributable to participation in the commission of “the offence”. Third, the member concerned must, in accordance with s 19(3)(a), tell the accused in ordinary language what the effects of failure or refusal to account may be. However, that effect may be that an inference might be drawn in relation to guilt of “the offence charged”. It is clear, therefore, that the inferences caution must relate to “the offence” which obviously relates back to the offence in respect of which, in the words of the first phrase of s 19 itself, there are “proceedings against a person”.

32. There is no ambiguity in that aspect of the section. The inferences caution must relate to the same offence as is involved in the proceedings ultimately brought and thus the same offence as that with which the accused is charged.

33. Then, if the accused failed or refused to give an account explaining his presence, the Court, in determining whether the accused is guilty of the offence charged (or of any other offence of which he could lawfully be convicted on that charge) may draw such inferences as appear proper, and the failure or refusal may on the basis of such inferences, be treated as, or capable of amounting to, corroboration of any evidence in which the failure or refusal is material.

 

Allowing Wilson’s appeal, Denham CJ held:

50. Section 19 may not be utilised in a trial for an offence other then the offence in respect of which the inference caution was expressly invoked. Any other approach would require further legislation.

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