Customs still ‘acting with impunity’

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Despite a clear ruling from the Ombudsman that customs officers in Donegal had not followed correct procedures anti-VRT campaigner Ryan Stewart has said it is little wonder there is a perception they are ‘above the law’ as they seem to be able to act with impunity.

Speaking with the Journal yesterday Mr Stewart said it was crystal clear the Ombudsman had ruled that Customs officers must follow their own guidelines before seizing vehicles, and prohibiting them from random challenges such as checkpoints, for the purposes of enforcing Vehicle Registration Tax compliance.

He commented: “Customs’ officers now appear to be chancing their arm when it comes to enforcement.

“The Ombudsman’s decision clearly highlighted that what these officers were doing was wrong and gave the Revenue Commissioners specific instruction on how they should carry out their operations, yet they continue to operate with impunity in Donegal. It is no wonder people in Donegal believe that Customs are a law unto themselves.”

The Ombudsman’s decision, given only a few months ago, was critical of how vehicle seizures were made, that the Customs own enforcement manuals were not adhered to, and that in order to effect a proper vehicle seizure they should have established over time that a vehicle was liable for seizure.

The Ombudsman was also critical of how records were maintained claiming there should be clear evidence to prove that such a vehicle was being used unregistered in the State over a period of time.

Mr Stewart again: “I was contacted last week by an individual who had borrowed a VRT-exempt vehicle for a short time yet still had their vehicle seized by Customs.

“The officer had issued a seizure notice but opted to offer a ‘catch and release’ method to obtain a fine.

“This method is fairly common practice but while the car is not ‘lifted’ when this occurs it is still deemed a seizure.

“This is clearly also in contravention of their procedures as both the Ombudsman and the Customs own enforcement manual clearly states that a first offence should be dealt with by way of a warning,

“By operating a ‘catch and release’ system - as it is known to Customs officers - they will issue a fine and generally people will pay it, as the threat of a physical seizure is made if the fine is not paid.

“These fines are frivolous in themselves, and they are generally based on the Customs officer’s assessment at the roadside of the value of the vehicle - something which they are clearly not qualified to assess.”

The anti- VRT campainger also pointed out decisions made at European Court level, which remain to be transposed into Irish Law remain in effect, and supercede Irish Law have clearly ruled much of what customs do as illegal.

“However, it is difficult to blame the officers on the street if their superiors do not educate them on this.

“Cases appearing at district court level should be thrown out, where seizures and charges made are incompatible with existing EU laws.”

Mr Stewart concluded, “There is a phrase used in law – ‘Ignorantia juris non excusat’ or ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse’ yet it is becoming increasingly more obvious that this goes both ways, and Customs cannot have it both ways.

“If Customs officers here want respect, it is about time that they respected the ordinary people that they are harassing on a regular basis, and also respected the rules that govern them, and the decision made by the Ombudsman.”