Custom officer’s wrist broken during 2013 VRT blitz, court hears

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A motorist who would not give up his vehicle during a VRT blitz in Muff twisted and broke a customs officer’s wrist, a court has heard.

John O’Doherty, 23 Primrose Street, Waterside, Derry was found guilty of assault causing harm to customs officer Bernard Oliver Hastings at Wheatfield, Muff on April 17th, 2013.

O’Doherty, (51) pleaded not guilty to the offence at a special sitting of Carndonagh District Court on Tuesday.

Mr. Hastings gave evidence stating how on the date in question, he was on checkpoint duty in Muff when he stopped a Northern Ireland registered black Isuzu Trooper, which had approached from the Quigley’s Point direction. O’Doherty produced a Northern Ireland driving licence and told Mr. Hastings he owned a property in Malin. The court was told O’Doherty owns a farm in Carrowmore and he and his family had stayed in it the previous night while works were being undertaken to their home in Derry. O’Doherty told the customs officer he was taking his two children, John, then 14 and Myra, then 12 to Oakgrove College in Derry.

Mr Hastings said he was “not entirely satisfied” and told O’Doherty, a property developer, he was detaining the vehicle.

The customs officer said O’Doherty told him they would “take the matter to court” and went to put on his seatbelt to drive off.

Mr Hastings added: “I put my left hand in the window to hover over the keys to prevent him from driving off.”

He said O’Doherty squeezed his left arm with both his hands, twisting it.

The customs officer then heard a “crack” and was in “excruciating pain” before calling to a colleague to assist. Mr. Hastings said when he did so, his hand was “wrenched free” and he fell back on to the road. He had the car key in his hand and an oncoming car “managed to get stopped” before it hit him.

Gardai were called and when Garda Frank Toher arrived on the scene, it was decided to return the car key to O’Doherty.

Mr. Hastings said his arm and wrist began to swell and he attended hospital where it was found he has broken the ‘distal radius’ in his wrist. He said he had suffered a “little bit” of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome following this but “apart from a few sleepless nights and during the cold weather,” there had been no lasting effects. Photographs of the injury were handed in to Judge Denis McLoughlin.

Defence solicitor Ciaran MacLochlainn asked Mr. Hastings how long he had bene with customs and revenue and their purpose for being in Muff that day.

He replied he had been with the department for 37 years and was normally based in Monaghan. He said the operation in Muff was part of a VRT blitz involving “14 or 15” revenue officers.

Mr. MacLochlainn asked what would have happened to O’Doherty and his two children if the vehicle had been seized on what the court heard was a “blustery and wet” day.

Mr. Hastings said they would have tried “to facilitate them,” by ringing a taxi or family members. He said he would “never leave someone on the side of the road.”

He also confirmed he carried out a search of the vehicle but did not find anything. Mr MacLochlainn said his client had told the customs officer: “Take me to court.”

“Was that not a sensible option?” he said.

Mr. Hastings replied that if they were to take everyone to court “the whole legal system would be clogged up.”

Mr. Hastings also confirmed to Mr. MacLochlainn that customs and revenue later decided not to pursue any case against O’Doherty in relation to driving a car without VRT. Mr. MacLochlainn said his client had a “bundle of documents” to prove he had lived in Northern Ireland for a number of years.

Mr. MacLochlainn put it to Mr. Hastings that the “most common cause” of a distal radius fracture was a fall on an outstretched hand.

“I’m putting it to you that you sustained this when you fell to the ground,” he said.

Mr. Hastings refuted this and said his left-arm was in the window as he is left-handed. He said he landed on the ground partially on his back and right-side. The customs officer added that O’Doherty’s demeanour was “quite calm” at first but he then became “more aggressive and assertive.” He also claimed that O’Doherty’s son was also “agitated” and was reaching from the back seat. He refuted Mr MacLochlainn’s claim that he told the young boy to: “Shut the f*** up.”

The court heard evidence from customs officer Anthony Keogh who went to Mr. Hastings’s aid on the day. His evidence was consistent with his colleague’s and he added how he “saw his arm being held by the driver.” He said he did not see the young man get involved.

Garda Frank Toher said that when he arrived on the scene, he noticed O’Doherty has a swollen right thumb and a drop of blood on his index finger.

O’Doherty, giving evidence, said he and his family visit their Malin farm at weekends. He said their home in Derry was being treated for damp and they stayed the night before in Malin due to chemicals. O’Doherty said he does receive “farming subs” in the State, for which “there are no restrictions on where you reside.”

O’Doherty claimed that Mr. Hastings “snatched” his keys from the ignition and he grabbed on to a second key attached to it. He said this “tugging” went on for a few minutes before the key ring holding them together broke and the customs officer fell back. O’Doherty said Mr. Hastings had the key in his right hand, not his left, adding it would be “impossible” for him to have his left arm in the “partially opened” window.

He said he did not let the customs officer take the keys as he felt “he had no entitlement.” O’Doherty claimed he also lost “quite a bit of blood” and there were fears he had severed a nerve in his finger. An X-ray confirmed it was tissue damage.

The court then heard evidence from John O’Doherty Junior, who also claimed the officer had placed his right hand in the vehicle. He said he was not shouting at him, adding he was having an asthma attack and told the officer: “Get off my father.” O’Doherty junior said there had been a “tug-o-war” over keys and when the officer fell back he “put out his left hand to save himself.”

This evidence was backed up by his sister, who said she was crying in the passenger seat during the incident.

Ruling, Judge O’Loughlin said that Mr Hastings was “perfectly entitled” to make the decision he did on the day. He said he was satisfied the injury was inflicted on Mr. Hastings when O’Doherty grabbed and twisted his arm. He found O’Doherty guilty of the offence and fined him 750 euro.