Decision to strike down firearms law may lead to softer sentences in future

A law requiring judges to impose a mandatory minimum five-year sentence on second-time firearms offenders has been struck down by the Supreme Court.

The court found the Oireachtas “impermissibly crossed the divide in the constitutional separation of powers” when it introduced the legislation.

The decision could lead to softer jail terms for repeat firearms offenders in future.

It could also spark challenges to other similar laws.

The Department of Justice is set to examine the consequences and implications of the judgment in consultation with the Attorney General.

The ruling came after convicted criminal Wayne Ellis challenged the constitutionality of a 2006 amendment to the Firearms Act 1964.

The ruling did not relate to mandatory sentences generally, but specifically to the use of such sentences for a certain cohort of people, in this case repeat offenders.

The court essentially found that while it may be permissible for the Oireachtas to specify a mandatory penalty which is to generally apply to all persons convicted of an offence, it could not single out a certain cohort of people.

In a ruling on behalf of the five-judge court, Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan said: “It is not constitutionally permissible for the Oireachtas to determine or prescribe by statute a penalty to which only a limited class of persons who commit a specified offence are subject, by reason either of the circumstances in which the offence was committed, or the personal circumstances of the convicted person.” She said Ellis fell into this category.

The court’s decision does not necessarily mean he will get out of jail sooner, but it will assist a separate appeal he is taking against the length of his sentence. It is understood he is the only person currently serving a sentence imposed under the struck-down law.

Ellis (37), of Landen Road, Ballyfermot, pleaded guilty to possession of a sawn-off shotgun at Knocklyon Shopping Centre in Dublin in 2012.

He had 26 previous convictions, including two for producing a firearm.

Initially he received a suspended five-year sentence as the judge accepted his offending was a result of his drug addiction and he had not reoffended while undergoing rehabilitation. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions appealed the leniency of the punishment and a custodial sentence was imposed.

In the Supreme Court proceedings, lawyers for Ellis argued the mandatory sentencing law was “an impermissible encroachment on the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts” under the Constitution. It was claimed the mandatory minimum sentence he received was a limitation to his right to have an appropriate sentence both determined and imposed on him by a judge.

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