By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Senior Constable Sean Daniel Murphy, a 57-year-old officer with 30 years in the NSW Police Force and two awards for bravery to his name, has pleaded guilty to ‘using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend’ after calling federal Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s office and making threats towards her 11-year old daughter on 3 July this year.
The story so far
Mr Murphy was immediately stood down from the force as an investigation was launched into allegations that he called the senator’s office and threatened her daughter.
In a recorded interview three weeks later, he disclosed to the federal police that he was not sure if he made the abusive remark because he had been drunk at the time.
Mr Murphy did not appear at the Downing Centre Local Court to plead guilty, as he is currently being treated in a residential facility for post-traumatic stress disorder. But his criminal defence barrister told the court that his client was “appalled by his conduct” and “contrite without relief”. The court also heard that he had offered to apologise to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in person, but his offer had been declined.
While outlining Mr Murphy’s years of exemplary service to the community, his lawyers also admitted that the former officer was being treated for mental health issues as a result of decades working on Sydney streets in some ‘troubled’ areas, where he was a victim of police assault on many occasions, and put in dangerous situations which threatened his life.
Magistrate Jennifer Atkinson has granted Mr Murphy bail as he awaits sentencing. Noting that Mr Murphy’s behaviour had been “quite distressing” to the victims, she set conditions of his bail – that he will not contact the senator’s office and that he resides either at a Wollongong address or the hospital where he is being treated.
Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act prescribes a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment for any person who “uses a carriage service… in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.”
A ‘carriage service’ is defined as a service for carrying communications by means of guided and/or unguided electromagnetic energy, which includes telephone calls, text messages and transmissions over the internet.
To establish the charge, the prosecution will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the officer, rather than another person, who made the alleged telephone calls and that the contents of that call would be regarded by a reasonable person as either menacing, harassing or offensive.
Section 138.2 of the Act defines ‘menaces’ as including:
- a threat (whether express or implied) of conduct that is detrimental or unpleasant to another person; or
- a general threat of detrimental or unpleasant conduct that is implied because of the status, office or position of the maker of the threat.
The section further states that a threat against an individual is not menacing unless it would be likely to cause:
- the individual to act unwillingly, and the maker is aware of the vulnerability of the individual; or
- a person of normal stability and courage to act unwillingly.
Section 473.4 states that the matters relevant when determining whether the use of a carriage services was ‘offensive’ include:
- the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults; and
- the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the material; and
- the general character of the material (including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character).
The Act does not contain a definition of ‘harass’, and its meaning is therefore left to the courts to determine.
Meanwhile in the Federal Court
Around the time of Murphy’s calls, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was embroiled in a public spat with fellow Senator David Leyonhjelm which resulted in her pursuing defamation proceedings.
Earlier this month, the Federal Court ruled that the lawsuit will proceed, rejecting David Leyonhjelm’s bid to have it halted.
The defamation suit centres around comments that Senator Leyonhjelm made to mainstream media including during air time on radio station 3AW and the ABC’s 7.30 programme.
In his application to have the case stayed, the Senator argued that parliamentary privilege precluded him from running a truth defence.
Parliamentary privilege offers immunity to politicians with regard to what is said in the House of Parliament itself, but outside Parliament politicians are bound by the same laws that restrict certain speech that we are all bound by such as certain hate speech, or speech that is defamatory.
With the application to stay proceedings dismissed, Senator Leyonhjelm flagged a potential appeal. He has also been ordered to pay Senator Hanson-Young’s costs.
The defamation case between the two senators is expected to return to court in December. Mr Murphy is expected to be sentenced in February next year.