Tuesday 22 October 2019

Gardai undertake not to access newspaper editor's phone information

Centre of attention: The house in Strokestown where a family was evicted
Centre of attention: The house in Strokestown where a family was evicted

Tim Healy

The Garda Commissioner has undertaken not to examine or otherwise attempt to access information on the phone of a newspaper editor as part of an investigation into incidents at a repossessed house in Strokestown, Roscommon, the High Court heard.

The undertaking will remain in place until a full hearing of Emmett Corcoran's action against the commissioner and the DPP over Thursday morning's threatened search of his home to obtain the phone despite his assertion of journalistic privilege over material on the phone.

He is editor of the Democrat newspaper which is based in Strokestown and circulates in Roscommon, Leitrim and Longford. 

On Thursday, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan granted him an interim injunction, returnable to Friday, preventing gardai from going through his phone records.

He handed it over after gardai threatened to search his Strokestown home, his grandparents' home and his office, when they arrived  on Thursday morning with a warrant issued by District Court Judge James Faughnan, he says.

He had attended Roscommon Garda Station, at the invitation of gardai, shortly after the repossession incident in Strokestown last December when a number of vehicles were set on fire.  Mr Corcoran was one of the first to arrive on the scene and filmed the fire but he refused to tell gardai who tipped him off, citing protection of journalistic sources.

He says he handed over all the photographic material relating to the incident. His solicitor, who accompanied him to the station, told gardai any attempt to seize his phone would be met with a legal challenge.

When the matter returned before Mr Justice Noonan on Friday, Michael McDowell SC, for Mr Corcoran, said the matter was of considerable gravity to his client as a lot of his records on the phone which these days can almost be regarded as one's office.

Tony McGillicuddy BL, for the commissioner, said his client was prepared to undertake not to access the contents of the phone in relation to the investigation but would retain the phone in the meantime pending further order of the court.

Counsel said he hoped to be in a position to put in a statement of opposition to Mr Corcoran's case next week but there were some legal and factual issues which will have to be assessed. He could not categorically say it would be ready by next week.

Oisín Clarke, for the DPP, said his side had only just received the papers and it was not clear whether the DPP will be involved.

Counsel said Mr Corcoran had raised an issue that the High Court has placed a stay on District Judge Faughnan, who issued the warrant, from dealing with any further proceedings against one of two people who have been charged in connection with the Strokestown incident. He was Martin O'Toole (56) from Irishtown, Claremorris, Co Mayo who was charged with trespass and burglary.

Mr Clarke said it was not clear from Mr Corcoran's papers  whether there was any link between this case and any possible breach of the stay granted in the O'Toole High Court challenge.

The court heard it may be possible to transfer data on Mr Corcoran's confiscated phone to another one.

Mr McGillicuddy, for the commissioner, said this is something that could be looked at and his side will communicate any proposals it has in that regard to Mr Corcoran's side.

Mr Justice Noonan said in view of that he was simply adourning the matter for a week.  He did not know if it would be possible for the case to be heard over the Easter vacation but if the data transfer were to take place, that might take the urgency out of the matter.   "I am not sure there is any reality to getting an early hearing date", he said.

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