A midwife who moved more than €109,000 which she knew was the proceeds of crime has avoided going to prison after the State failed in an appeal against the "undue leniency" of her 12-month suspended sentence.
The three-judge Court of Appeal found that Samantha Sinnott's case had "all the hallmarks of a normally law-abiding citizen", who had made "one extremely foolish and rash error of judgment", but had followed up with responsible behaviour in her co-operation with gardaí and dealings with the courts.
The Court of Appeal said it was of the view that the mother-of five's appeal was one of those "rare cases", which fell into the exceptional category in which a wholly suspended sentence was within the appropriate range of the sentencing judge's discretion.
The 41-year-old, with an address at Hilltown, Ballymitty, County Wexford pleaded guilty at Wexford Circuit Criminal Court in 2019 to concealing €109,890 which she knew to be the proceeds of crime at her partner’s home in Slevoy, Foulksmills, County Wexford on September 22, 2018.
During a sentence hearing last year, the court heard that Sinnott had removed the money from her partner’s house to her own home after hearing on the radio that gardaí had arrested three men as part of a criminal investigation.
Sinnott admitted to gardaí that she had emptied the safe, which was located in the concrete in the floor of a hot press, during a search of her partner's home, where she was present, and had taken the contents in two bags to her house which was approximately two miles away.
After her arrest, the former midwife, who worked at Wexford General Hospital, told gardaí that she "had suspected the cash that was in the safe was the proceeds of crime, or certainly illegal activity". She admitted that she had discovered the money and removed it because she believed it belonged to her partner.
She said that she had heard on the radio that day that a number of men had been arrested in Wexford Town and she had become nervous. She then removed the money from the premises in order to protect her partner.
Last September, Sinead Gleeson BL for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told the Court of Appeal that the sentencing judge should have considered a custodial sentence in Sinnott's case. While Ms Gleeson acknowledged there were a lot of mitigating factors in Sinnott’s favour, including the fact that she had a four-week-old baby at the time of the offence as well as no previous convictions, she claimed the non-custodial sentence did not take into account the gravity of the offence given the sum of money involved.
Counsel also noted that a Probation Service report had classified Sinnott’s actions as “a serious error of judgement”.
Ms Gleeson pointed out that the sentencing judge had given a headline sentence of two and a half years for Sinnott’s offence and after taking into account the mitigating factors, he imposed a sentence of 12 months imprisonment, suspended in its entirety.
Counsel claimed undue weight had been given to mitigating factors, adding that Sinnott had been given “too great a reduction” in sentence. “Two and a half years was too low a starting point,” Ms Gleeson remarked.
The President of the Court of the Appeal, Mr Justice George Birmingham, observed at the appeal hearing last year that Sinnott had not been providing a regular storage facility for the proceeds of crime to a criminal gang. He also said she was not the target of the Garda investigation but had “stumbled into it”.
Outlining the Court of Appeal's ruling this Thursday in an oral judgement, Ms Justice Úna Ní Raifeartaigh said the court was of the view that the wholly suspended sentence should be upheld. The judge said the respondent's decision to move the money was "sudden" and in no way premeditated. Its inspiration was her desire to protect her partner rather than personal gain.
Furthermore, the court found Sinnott's intention to conceal was "short-lived" insofar as she almost immediately confessed what she had done to gardaí and had cooperated with officers by letting them into her house without a warrant, giving them the money and following up with admissions. In addition, the court stressed that she had entered an early guilty plea.
"Her general circumstances were those of a generally hard-working, law-abiding citizen, being a community midwife with an excellent reference from the local hospital and a complete absence of any previous convictions," said Ms Ní Raifeartaigh.
Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh, who sat with Mr Justice Birmingham and Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly, noted that notwithstanding "the grave nature" of the offence of money-laundering and the amount of money involved, the court was of the view that this was one of those rare cases, which fell into the exceptional category in which a wholly suspended sentence was within the appropriate range of the sentencing judge's discretion.
In summary, Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said the Court of Appeal did not consider that the application met the threshold set out in "undue leniency" cases and would therefore dismiss the DPP's appeal.
Last October, Sinnott brought a High Court challenge against the HSE's decision to dismiss her from her employment at Wexford General Hospital after she received a 12-month suspended prison sentence.
Sinnott claims that arising out of the publication of her case in the local media, the HSE told her not to return to work and internal disciplinary proceedings were brought against her.
She claims that the process was flawed as the HSE never commenced any investigative process. She also maintains that she was never interviewed nor offered a chance to present anything to her employer.
Given that she had continued to work post her plea of guilty, Sinnott said she had a legitimate expectation that she would retain her employment and is seeking an order quashing her employer's decision to dismiss her from her job.