A Queensland paramedic was acquitted my Magistrate Braes in the Magistrates Court at Mareeba in what I can only describe as a bizarre prosecution. I have previously commented on how it can be impossible to find the details of a magistrate’s decision (see Accessing a judge or magistrate’s reasons for decision (November 18, 2016) but this is a rare case when the Magistrate’s decision has been reduced to writing and published as Queensland Police Service v Russell-Brereton  QMC 19. Because it is a decision in a Magistrate’s court, the Magistrate does not have the sort of time that a court of appeal judge has to write out the reasons for decision. The Magistrate wrote his decision without the benefit of a transcript (). What follows is that the facts are not set out with the sort of clarity one would expect from a judge after a trial or appeal, so some of the facts, and the role of some of the witnesses has to be inferred from the judgment. With that limitation in mind what we are told (at ) is:
At the commencement of the trial the prosecutor gave a brief opening of the prosecution case. She said that on the 23rd September 2017 at Mount Surprise the defendant whilst driving a Queensland Ambulance Service vehicle to a call out collided with a quad bike and that the defendant claims this was due to brake failure. She said that it would be alleged by the prosecution that during the time the defendant and passenger waited for the tow truck the QAS vehicle was wilfully interfered with by the defendant. She said that it would be alleged the defendant’s motive for interfering with the vehicle was due to the previous collision with a quad bike. She said it would be alleged that this collision was not due to brake failure but in fact due to him not driving to the conditions of Springfield Road. The defendant had stated the cause of the collision as brake failure and needed to make the vehicle look as though that is what had occurred.
The defendant was charged with one count of wilfully interfering with the mechanism of the vehicle contrary to the Transport Operations (Road Use Management) Act 1995 (Qld) s135.
In summary the evidence was
- At the time of the accident, the defendant said (at ) to Mr Anderson, a trainee paramedic that he was working with, that the brakes had failed.
- After the accident, Mr Anderson was asked to drive the vehicle but apparently did not because of his concern about the brakes. At  it is said “Mr Andrews who did not drive the vehicle… said the pedal went straight to the floor’. There is some discrepancy about the dates and when he might have observed the pedal going ‘to the floor’ so it’s not clear if that observation was immediately after the accident or two days later.
- Mr Thompson, a QAS paramedic was dispatched to meet the defendant and Mr Anderson. He observed that the damaged ambulance was parked with bonnet open. He observed (at ) that ‘the lid off the brake reservoir was stuck under the brake pipes, and there were splashes of brake fluid around the engine bay.’
- Mr Major (at ) ‘inspected the vehicle on the 30th October, a week after the event. He said the brakes were working in two out of the four wheels’. It is not clear who Mr Major was or his qualifications but presumably he was engaged either by QAS or Queensland Police to inspect the vehicle.
- Mr Hutchinson who is described (at ) as ‘a Queensland Ambulance Service business manager and also a qualified motor mechanic’ said (at ) ‘“When Merc brakes actually fail they stay failed.” He inspected the vehicle in Cairns a few days after the event. He did not drive it’. One can infer that his conclusion was the fact that the brakes worked when he inspected it meant they could not have failed on the date of the accident as they would ‘stay failed’.
- An inspection sometime after the accident revealed (at ) that ‘the nuts coming out of the master cylinder were loose’.
As the Magistrate noted (at ) ‘There is no direct evidence the defendant interfered with the mechanism of the vehicle at all. The prosecution case is entirely circumstantial.’ A circumstantial case can establish a person’s guilt but only where ‘the only rational inference that could be drawn from the circumstances’ () is that the person committed the offence alleged. At  His Honour summed up the case that the prosecution asked him to find. He said:
I am asked to find; that after a collision with a quad bike, which occurred on a rough gravel road in the darkness whilst travelling to a code one emergency in a Mercedes Sprinter Van, (a vehicle hardly suited to the task), and where it was so dark the passenger was not sure where the road went, the defendant; after causing the crash, acted to exculpate himself from the fallout from the crash with an instrument, which I am to infer was a tool of some sort, (there being no evidence of the existence of such a thing), acted with criminal intent by interfering with the mechanism of the ambulance.
His Honour said (at ):
The defendant is an experienced long serving paramedic, not the sort of person to act in the manner alleged, and risk his career over an event which could be explained by the urgency of the matter, the state of the road, the unsuitability of the van for the conditions and the lights of the quad bike.
The prosecution, on the other hand, was (at ) based on a ‘conspiracy theory’:
Mr Morgan, a Senior Operations Supervisor at Queensland Ambulance was initially sceptical of the defendant’s story, in fact he said in evidence “I was not convinced the brakes failed but I was not there. Nor in my mind. From my experience.” The die was therefore cast…
And later (at ):
This is a circumstantial case which grew out of the suspicion harboured by Mr Morgan who, whilst not being there, was not convinced the brakes had failed.
He said (at ):
It appears to me that this is a case where people who have no direct involvement in the matter have jumped to conclusions without any direct evidence and then have been stuck fast to that opinion, never stopping to evaluate the evidence or question their initial assumption.
The defendant paramedic was acquitted.
That the case proceeded to a hearing, with 14 witnesses (), seems extraordinary. The fact that Mr Thomson observed the lid of the brake fluid reservoir had come off and there was brake fluid sprayed around the engine compartment would have been enough to stop the police taking further action.
Many might comment on the ambulance leadership who having formed a view that it couldn’t have been brake failure and then ‘stuck fast to that opinion’ but it was police, not QAS that laid the charge and continued the prosecution. The point of independent investigators (like independent judges) is to ensure that those too close to the matter do not get to judge it. Why the police bought into the conspiracy theory is not explained particularly when police who first attended
… were not alerted to a suspicion although they were told upon the arrival of Mr Anderson and the defendant they had had a complete brake failure and had hit a quad bike on the way [and] Sergeant Smith who spoke to Mr and Mrs Dunstone [the rider of the quad bike] at the scene of the quad bike collision also took no action to breathalyse the defendant, inspect the vehicle, nor take the vehicle into his possession.
The saving grace is that Mr Russell-Brereton was acquitted but only after 2 years (the accident occurred on 23 September 2017, judgment was delivered on 11 December, 2019) and no doubt at considerable cost as he was represented by a barrister and probably also a solicitor. One cannot know what impact that has had on his career or his commitment to QAS.