A CUSTOMER who was “deliberately coughing” around the till area at a ‘Subway’ outlet at Coleraine’s Riverside Retail Park at the time coronavirus was first taking a deadly grip of Northern Ireland in March has been given a suspended jail term.
Joel Gault (22), of The Warren, Ballymoney, pleaded guilty to a charge of assault in relation to an incident on March 21 this year.
A prosecutor told Coleraine Magistrates Court, sitting in Ballymena on Friday, police received a report of a male “deliberately coughing” around the till area at the Subway.
The court heard the defendant denied to police the coughing was intentional and he was drunk at the time.
Defence solicitor Denise Gillan said the incident occurred on March 21 which she said was “just on the cusp of” the first covid lockdown which she said was, at the time, a “reasonably new phenomenon and nobody knew what to do with it”.
She said the defendant was not charged with disorderly behaviour but one of common assault and the defendant now accepted how the shop worker “felt ill at ease and, quite frankly, scared by his behaviour and he is very regretful for that”.
The lawyer said that therefore the defendant had instructed her to enter a plea of guilty.
Ms Gillan said the defendant is a factory night-shift worker and had a clear record.
She said she had rarely seen a Probation Report as “good” as that on the defendant.
The solicitor said the defendant acknowledged he had a cough at the time of the offence “but at that stage he wasn’t taking matters seriously and with hindsight he recognises how reckless his behaviour was and he said he acted with immaturity and thoughtlessness for the feelings of others”.
Ms Gillan said the defendant had shown remorse and realised “that just because of the times we are in has found himself in a situation which at any other time would not necessarily attract the type of opprobrium and result in a court appearance that it would otherwise”.
She said the defendant had a good family background and the family was “embarrassed”.
The solicitor said the defendant had learned his lesson.
She added: “He behaved very badly on the date in question, it was more immaturity and recklessness. This is not someone who spat on a police officer or a member of the emergency services. It was a very bad piece of behaviour.”
Ms Gillan said the defendant was pleading guilty to ‘common assault’ as he accepted the worker would have been “put in fear”.
District Judge Peter King told the defendant: “You would have seen from the news a number of people who are involved in cases like this have gone to prison, immediately.”
The judge said the defence had pointed out this wasn’t an offence involving a member of the emergency services but it did involve a worker in “a local Subway branch”.
He said the defendant had been in a fast-food outlet and the worker “for very obvious reasons was put in fear of you”.
The judge said an aggravating feature of the case was that the person became a victim whilst at work and it was “covid-related offending”.
He added: “It’s hard to think of a worse situation you have put yourself in by sheer stupidity”.
The judge said there was a very positive pre-sentence report; the defendant had a clear background and he didn’t expect to see him back in court but he didn’t know “what was going through your mind on the night in question”.
Judge King told the defendant he had put himself in a situation where his “entire future” was in jeopardy.
He said he had “every sympathy” about what was said on the defendant’s behalf and the contents of the pre-sentence report but he was “obliged to send out a very strong message that this sort of behaviour cannot ever be acceptable especially in the context of the covid pandemic”.
The judge said the defendant had put himself in a situation where he was trying to persuade himself not to send to him to prison straight away.
Judge King handed down a three months prison term but because of the positive pre-sentence report he suspended it for three months and ordered the defendant to pay £350 compensation to the Subway worker.
He told the defendant he “came within a hair’s breadth” of going to prison immediately.