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Irish Court of Criminal Appeal
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Cite as:  IECCA 37
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Judgment Title: DPP -v- David O'Neill
Composition of Court: Finnegan J., Moriarty J., Hogan J.
Judgment by: Finnegan J.
Status of Judgment: Approved
THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEAL
[2010 No. 315 CCA]BETWEEN/
THE PEOPLE (AT THE SUIT OF THE DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS)
APPLICANTJUDGMENT of the Court delivered by Mr. Justice Joseph Finnegan on 15th February, 2012
The existence of a prior good character is one of the surest grounds for mitigation which can be advanced before the sentencing judge. Where, however, the existence of such prior good character is disputed or is otherwise in doubt, then the sentencing judge may be presented with a fresh difficulty, not least where, as the facts of this appeal illustrate, the relevant Garda or other prosecution witnesses either deny or are ambivalent regarding the existence of such a general good character at the sentencing hearing. These problems are then further compounded where the prosecution witnesses go further in their evidence and convey the impression that the accused is, in fact, guilty of offences other than the one with which he has been charged. The extent to which the sentencing judge can receive such evidence is, in essence, the issue which arises for consideration in the present appeal against sentence.
On the 13th March, 2008, the Gardaí obtained a search warrant and searched the applicant’s family home in Clondalkin, Co. Dublin. 135 grams of cocaine were found in the course of the search and it has a value of approximately €10,000. It is only fair to say that the applicant made prompt admissions as to ownership of the contraband in question.
The applicant pleaded guilty to the offence in the Dublin Circuit (Criminal) Court in July, 2010 and following a sentencing hearing in December, 2010 - the background to which we shall presently describe - His Honour Judge McCartan imposed a sentence of five years imprisonment with immediate effect, with the final year suspended on a bond to keep the peace for one year. To put all of this in context, it should be noted that the applicant’s prior conduct was not entirely unblemished. He had thirteen previous convictions and while the vast majority of these related to road traffic offences, he had a relatively recent conviction for possession of a flick knife, contrary to s. 9(4) of the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990.
The cocaine had been found in separated weighed out bags which had been secreted in a storage press under the stairs of the premises in question. The Gardaí also found a digital weighing scales and a mobile telephone SIM card in the cupboard. While the applicant was generally prepared to co-operate with the Gardaí, this did not go so far as permitting them to activate his mobile telephone, since he declined to disclose the number for his pin code.
At the sentencing hearing the principal issue was whether these drugs were largely for Mr. O’Neill’s personal consumption or whether he was engaged in the distribution and sale of drugs, albeit, perhaps, on a relatively small scale. It must be here recalled that possession of even this quantity of drugs is an inherently serious matter, not least given that the Oireachtas has prescribed a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for an offence under s. 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 (as amended): see, e.g., the comments of Murphy J. for this Court in The People v. Gethins, Court of Criminal Appeal, 23 November 2011. It is true that possession of quantities of illicit drugs in excess of a figure of €13,000 (approximately) would expose the accused to a presumptive minimum sentence of ten years in the light of the provisions of s. 15A of the 1977 Act. Nevertheless, in both cases the maximum penalty remains that of life imprisonment.
It is also true that the applicant’s own personal circumstances were such as would excite sympathy and would represent generally mitigating factors. He was an early school leaver who began to abuse drugs and other substances at an early age. His family life appears to have been unhappy and he was required to provide financial support for his parents, one of whom is sadly blind and incapacitated. The sentencing judge was fully aware of these factors which, while not expressly mentioned by him during the course of the sentencing hearing, are necessarily reflected in the otherwise relatively moderate sentence which was, in fact, imposed.
We can turn now to the principal question presented on this appeal. In urging leniency, the applicant’s case was that he was not a drug dealer as such, but that he simply sold drugs to his own friends in order to facilitate his own drug purchases. It was contended that the applicant had sold a horse (he is, apparently, an animal lover and has a keen love of horses) and that he had acquired a significant sum of money as a result. At the sentence hearing, his counsel, Mr. Lawlor, contended that he had used the money to purchase a quantity of drugs. While he did not, as such profit from the drugs, it was suggested that he had bartered the drugs with his friends in exchange for other goods, such as horse-tack and the like.
The prosecuting authorities took a rather less benign view of these events and the entire tenor of the evidence given by the principal investigating Garda, Garda Padraig Shanley, was rather to the effect that the applicant had sold and supplied drugs generally and had not simply bartered them with his friends. Following a cross-examination by Mr. Lawlor which invited Garda Shanley to accept that the applicant was involved in the sale and supply of drugs, albeit at a relatively low level, the following exchange then took place:-
“Judge: You believe this man was selling drugs?
Judge: For how long?
A. Possibly a few years, judge.
Judge: Are you aware of his source, do you know where he gets his drugs from?
A. I’m not sure, no. No.
Judge: You’re not?
Judge: You don’t know or you’re not sure?
A. I’m not sure. Again, in my time in Clondalkin a lot of drug dealers were associates,….they’re basically mixing in the same circles.
Judge: They’d be all known to you?
A. They would be, yes?
Judge: Right, I’m obliged, thank you.”
While we appreciate that the learned sentencing judge was merely endeavouring to clarify aspects of Garda Shanley’s testimony, it is nonetheless clear from both principle and authority that this line of questioning is not permissible in the course of a sentencing hearing. So far as authority is concerned, it is sufficient to refer to three earlier decisions of this Court.
We may start with The People v. Delaney, Court of Criminal Appeal, 28th February, 2000. In that case the applicant had pleaded guilty to possession of drugs contrary to s. 15 of the 1977 Act. Evidence was adduced at the sentencing hearing to the effect that the drugs had been professionally handled. That in itself led to the inference that the applicant had been significantly involved in the supply of drugs. The sentencing judge went further, however, and invited the prosecuting Garda to grade the applicant on a scale of one to ten in terms of his involvement with the supply of illicit drugs. Hardiman J. held that this was highly prejudicial and neither related to the offence of which he had been convicted or to past convictions to which the judge might have regard.
Next, in The People v. Gilligan (No.2)  3 I.R. 87 the accused had been convicted on five separate counts of the importation of cannabis resin. While it was conceded that there might other instances where the accused had imported the drugs in question, it was stressed that he had not actually been convicted of such importation. On appeal to this Court McCracken J. acknowledged that it was important that a sentencing court “cannot act in blinkers”. He continued thus:-
This entire topic was extensively traversed in the comprehensive judgment of this Court in The People v. McDonnell  IECCA 16,  2 I.R. 105, another s. 15 case where the two accused had pleaded guilty to possession of drugs. The trial judge intervened in the course of the evidence given by the investigating Garda during the sentencing hearing to ask him about the length of time that the accused had been involved in the drugs trade. The investigating Garda confirmed that one of them, Mr. McDonnell, “would have been known to us for a number of years”, although he also conceded that this accused had never been charged with any other offences.
When it came to imposing sentence, the trial judge made it clear that he was entitled to look behind the absence of any previous drugs convictions and to discern a pattern of prior illicit drug dealing in view of the opinion evidence given by the investigating Garda. He proceeded to draw the appropriate inferences from this hearsay evidence.
On appeal to this Court Kearns J. emphasised that in practice hearsay evidence was received on a more informal and relaxed basis in the course of a sentence hearing than in the case of a criminal trial. While this often operates to assist the accused in those cases where the investigating Garda gives hearsay opinion about his general character and prospects of re-offending, Kearns J. also stressed the limitations to this approach, especially where key facts concerning extraneous matters which might be expected to weigh heavily on a sentencing judge were now disputed ( 4 IR 105, 120):-
Hearsay evidence of character, antecedents, and as to the background to the particular offence being dealt with, including the extent of the role played therein by an accused may, at the discretion of the sentencing judge, be received, subject to the requirement that if a particular fact assumes specific significance or is disputed the court’s findings should require strict proof. It is a matter for the sentencing judge to decide what weight should be attached to such hearsay evidence as is received, noting any objection taken thereto and any arguments or evidence offered in rebuttal.”
We venture to suggest, however, that the sentencing judge will often be entitled to draw the appropriate inferences regarding the true background circumstances of the offence, even in the absence of receiving hearsay evidence regarding other possible offences. This is also true so far as the present case is concerned. Here the applicant was found with almost €10,000 worth of cocaine in separate weighed out bags, along with a weighing machine and a mobile telephone whose pin number he was not prepared to disclose to Gardai. It must be recalled, however, that the applicant who was in receipt of social welfare payments, had no other visible means of support. One might therefore wonder how he was in a position to acquire drugs of this value. It is true that the applicant maintained that he had sold a horse and used the proceeds to purchase a sizeable quantity of drugs. However, given all the circumstances, including the utter absence of any vouching documentation or other attestation, this account must frankly be discounted as an item of credible evidence.
All of this serves to negative the applicant’s account that he was merely casually involved with others so far as the supply of drugs was concerned and that the drugs were simply principally for personal consumption. Viewed in that light, the applicant’s possession of this quantity of drugs cannot be regarded in quite the benign fashion which was urged by Mr. Lawlor on his behalf. The applicant therefore clearly intended to trade in the 135 grams of cocaine which were found in his possession. It was accordingly unnecessary for the learned trial judge to canvass other possibilities, such as whether the applicant had been engaged in the sale and supply of other quantities of drugs, apart from the possession of the drugs in respect of which he had been convicted.
In these circumstances, we cannot say that the learned sentencing judge erred in imposing a sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment, with the final year suspended, even if he had recourse to inadmissible hearsay evidence during the currency of the sentencing process itself. It was for these reasons that the Court dismissed the applicant’s appeal against the severity of sentence.