Armed police used proportionate force in a raid on a hotel penthouse suite in Belfast where a guest’s nose was allegedly broken, a High Court judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Stephens dismissed Clifford Irons’ claim that an officer inflicted the injuries by striking him in the face with the butt of a loaded rifle during an operation linked to unfounded suspicions about a cash-in-transit robbery.
He said: “To act in that way so one no longer had any control over the trigger would, in my view, be entirely reckless and highly improbable.”
The Carrickfergus man sued the PSNI over the operation at the Radisson Blu Hotel in December 2013.
He had booked into the penthouse suite for weekend birthday celebrations, with friends taking rooms on the same floor.
Hotel staff became concerned amid an alleged sighting of a suitcase full of money, and towels stained with red dye being sent for laundering.
Police were alerted and believed there may be a connection to a cash-in-transit robbery on the north coast, the court heard.
An armed response unit heavily equipped with a ballistic shield, guns, batons, flak jackets and Tasers were called in to carry out an arrest operation.
No evidence of links to any suspected cash heist was discovered.
Mr Irons claimed damages for alleged assault and battery, along with trespass, over how the operation was carried out.
He told the court up to 10 officers entered as he dozed in a chair after returning from a nightclub.
He claimed to have heard a bang and turned round to see members of the unit enter and shout for him not to move.
According to his account one officer came straight at him and hit him on the face without provocation, causing him to fall backwards and strike a coffee table.
His face was then repeatedly struck off the wooden floor, he alleged.
But the officer who led the team into the hotel rejected his version of events.
He said five armed response personnel entered the suite, using a key code card to access the first door before the unit advanced to the inner rooms.
He claimed to have seen another man apparently pouring a white powder out through a window.
Mr Justice Stephens was told the officer directed his attention at Irons, sitting with his back to him, and asked him to show his hands.
“He looked directly at me and told me to f*** off,” the police witness said.
He alleged that Irons then appeared to be reaching forward towards the ground and, wrongly, feared the hotel guest may be reaching for a weapon.
“I assessed the threat as high, my life and my colleagues lives may be in danger, (and) the subject Mr Irons’ life may be in danger,” he said.
“I took decisive and immediate action to try and mitigate the risk for all concerned, and delivered a muzzle strike with my rifle to his back.
“Mr Irons fell forward onto the floor.”
The officer accepted that during a struggle to apply handcuffs stage his rifle accidentally swung round, striking Mr Irons on the face and causing an injury.
Delivering judgment, Mr Justice Stephens said: “The situation that developed was highly dangerous and lives were at risk.
“The actions of the police officers in such circumstances have to be conducted with professionalism and be subject to the most rigorous training.”
Dealing with the conflicting accounts, he backed the police version of events.
“I consider it highly improbable that an armed police officer would turn his gun around so it was facing directly towards that armed police officer in order to use the butt of his gun to strike a person who was not complying with the direction given.
“Such action would amount to complete recklessness – the safety catch was off, this was a weapon loaded with two magazines.”
Even if Mr Irons’ nose was fractured during the incident, the judge held that it would have occurred when he fell forward onto the floor.
Dismissing the claim and awarding costs to the PSNI, he confirmed: “I have no hesitation in saying the force used to strike with the muzzle was appropriate.”