A FORMER paramedic who groped a woman in the back of an ambulance while taking her to hospital, has been cleared of misconduct – after top judges said he was not a public official.
William Mitchell was captured on CCTV fondling the woman’s breasts and putting her hand on his groin, after being sent to her home after an emergency call.
The 57-year-old, of Dunscarr, Fencehouses, near Houghton, admitted misconduct in a public office at Durham Crown Court last December, after a crown court judge dismissed an attempt by his lawyers to get the case thrown out, on the basis he had not held a “public office”.
However, after they took the case to London’s Criminal Appeal Court before he could be sentenced, Mitchell’s conviction was quashed by three of the country’s most senior judges.
Sir Brian Leveson said that – while the court “deprecated” what he had done – he should not have been charged with the offence because a paramedic is not a public official.
Sitting with Lady Justice Thirlwall and Mr Justice Lewis, he said the duty owed by paramedics and other health workers in a similar position, was owed to “individuals” and their employers, rather than a specific duty to the general public.
The court heard how Mitchell and a colleague were sent to the home of a 58-year-old woman last April.
The woman, who suffered from various health problems and had been short of breath, was behaving in a “volatile and rather bizarre manner”, and was put in the back of the ambulance with Mitchell, where he was caught on CCTV touching her.
He resigned from the North East Ambulance Service after the complaint.
The judge said lawyers for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had given “cogent reasons” why it would not have been appropriate to prosecute Mitchell for a sexual offence, instead charging him with misconduct in a “public office”.
His barrister, David Comb, tried to have the case thrown out before Mitchell entered his guilty plea, arguing the role of a paramedic could not be regarded as a “public office”, but the case went ahead.
Mr Comb repeated his argument before the Appeal Court, saying that, in the history of the NHS, not a single prosecution has taken place against an NHS worker for misconduct in a public office.
He said any misconduct by health workers was dealt with by their employers through disciplinary proceedings and that paramedics were not “public officers”.
Challenging his submissions on behalf of the CPS, Alison Levitt, QC, argued that a paramedic did meet the criteria of “public office” because they were frontline staff, responding to emergencies and the public had to trust that they would fulfil their duties with “probity and propriety”.
But, allowing Mitchell’s appeal, Sir Brian said that, while it may not have been possible to charge him with a sexual offence, the definition of “public office” could not be extended to the role of a paramedic to enable a prosecution to take place.
He said: “In the context of a case such as this, it is important to underline that the focus is on the duties and responsibilities of the relevant individual and not on the overall responsibilities of the trust.
The judge added: “In our judgment, the appellant was not – in his position as a paramedic – in a public office.
“Although we deprecate his conduct, we recognise that, in the particular circumstances of this case, it may not have been possible to bring a prosecution for a sexual offence.”