A police officer took all reasonable steps before returning car keys to a woman who died when her car collided with a lorry 16 hours after she was arrested on suspicion of driving whilst unfit.
That is the finding of a Police Ombudsman investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fatal collision, which happened on the Frosses Road, between Ballymena and Ballymoney, on 17 March 2011.
Officer disciplined for lack of action over insurance offence.
However, another police officer was disciplined for failing to properly record and inform colleagues that the car the woman was driving was uninsured.
The woman (Woman A) was arrested on 16 March 2011 after police received a report that she had left a filling station without paying for fuel and may also have been drinking. The call was made to police shortly after 3.30pm that day.
About 20 minutes after receiving the call, police carried out an insurance check which revealed that the vehicle Woman A was driving was uninsured. An officer later admitted failing to inform colleagues or record the information on the police incident log.
Woman A was subsequently stopped by police at 5.17pm on 16 March 2011, after a police patrol noticed her driving erratically in the Market Street area of Ballymoney.
She was arrested on suspicion of driving while unfit through drugs and was taken into custody at Ballymena PSNI station. Meanwhile, her car was parked in a public car park close to Ballymoney police station, and the keys retained within the station.
Neither the arresting officer nor custody staff were made aware that the car was uninsured, and Woman A was released on police bail shortly before 9.30pm after agreeing to pay for the fuel. Police then drove her home.
After arriving home, Woman A then took a taxi to Ballymoney PSNI station where she asked for her car back. She arrived at the station at about 10.45pm, but was refused access to her keys.
At 8.25am the next day, Woman A returned to Ballymoney PSNI station and again asked for her keys. A civilian Station Enquiry Officer realised that the keys were in an envelope in the enquiry office, but refused to give them to her as he considered that she was still unfit to drive.
The Station Enquiry Officer checked the call log from the previous day, but as there was no mention of Woman A not having insurance, he did not believe that there was a need to conduct any further checks.
Preliminary breath test proved negative, and woman assessed as fit to drive.
A request was then made for a police officer to come to the station to speak to her. An officer from Coleraine came to the station, but had limited information about the circumstances of Woman A’s arrest. The officer carried out a voluntary preliminary breath test on Woman A, which proved negative, and made a general assessment of her fitness to drive. Woman A was then given the keys.
A short time later, at 09:19 hours, police received a report of a traffic collision on the Frosses Road, between Ballymena and Ballymoney. The collision had involved Woman A’s car, which had veered onto the wrong side of the road and collided with a lorry. Woman A was pronounced dead at the scene a short time later.
The police then alerted the Police Ombudsman’s Office to the incident, on the basis that police were likely to have been the last people Woman A had contact with prior to her death.
The Police Ombudsman launched an immediate investigation. A scene examination took place, statements were taken from relevant witnesses, police documentation was analysed, and an appeal for witnesses was issued to the media.
No traces of any non-prescribed drug or alcohol in woman's bloodstream.
A subsequent post-mortem found no trace of any un-prescribed drug in Woman A’s bloodstream. Neither was any alcohol detected. However, one of the prescribed drugs in her system was above the therapeutic range, and when combined with other prescribed drugs, may have produced “a degree of sedation”. It was not possible to determine when Woman A had taken the medication.
Having reviewed the evidence, the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said the Station Enquiry Officer and the police officer who conducted the breath test had taken “all reasonable steps.”
However, Dr Maguire recommended that the officer who failed to record that the car was uninsured, should be disciplined for the omission. Police have since implemented this recommendation.