A FORMER Policing Board employee has been cleared of shoplifting from a supermarket after making an "honest mistake" following the death of a beloved pet.
Company director Judith Brannigan was alleged to have stolen items worth £57.60 from Tesco in Newtownbreda in October last year but was cleared after a brief contest at Newtownards Magistrates Court last week, with the judge describing the case as "nonsense".
The 43-year-old, the co-founder of Libra Events Ltd, had consistently denied the theft since being charged in August.
Giving evidence, Ms Brannigan, from Carryduff, Co Down, said she had visited the vet on the day of the incident to have her cat put down.
Upset and distracted in the supermarket afterwards, she accidentally failed to pay for groceries.
The businesswoman said she had used a scan-as-you-shop device because, after crying over her pet's death, she did not want to talk to anyone.
She claimed to have become distracted when an employee helped her to remove a security tag from a bottle, resulting in non-payment.
"I thought I had paid, but obviously I didn't. I left without knowing there was an issue. I shop there once a week. The security staff know me. I have never been accused of shoplifting," Ms Brannigan told the court.
"It was only the second time I had ever used the scan-as-you-shop system. I scanned and processed everything and a lady came over and removed the tag from the bottle.
"When she left me, I thought I had paid, so I walked away."
The PSNI left a card at her home "a week or so" later. They then showed up at her door a month after the episode.
Ms Brannigan later returned to the supermarket and paid for the items.
She pointed out during the hearing that she had scanned her Tesco Clubcard at the beginning of the shopping trip.
The PSNI wanted to issue her with a fixed penalty for shoplifting, but she refused to accept it, insisting she was innocent and taking the matter to court.
"It was an honest mistake, which is why I didn't accept the fixed penalty. In my mind, I had paid," she said. "I was upset that day after having my cat put down at the vet's, so my mind was all over the place."
District Judge Mark Hamill dismissed the case against Ms Brannigan, insisting the Public Prosecution Service had fallen well short of the standard of proof required for a conviction.
He said: "It's a bit of a nonsense, this case. No jury would give this more than 10 minutes of consideration. There is no case to answer and the prosecution hasn't got anywhere near proving this matter."
Ms Brannigan worked in the press office of the Policing Board.
She moved from that position to the Odyssey Arena and then onto the King's Hall complex, where she worked on the Balmoral Show for five years before becoming director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Show for 2013 and 2014. She appeared in promotional material for that event, which she described as the favourite she had managed, with First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster.
"So many events come to mind, but the one that stands out is the first Food and Drink Show, which took place in 2013," Ms Brannigan previously said when asked about the projects she had worked on.
"It was an amazing feeling to see over a year of hard work culminate in a fantastic event."
The businesswoman's company website describes her as someone who "specialises in operations, sales and sponsorship management for consumer events, trade events and venues".
It adds that she is a member of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers.
"She is an ideas person with a flair for adventure, always striving to come up with something extra-special to include in the events she organises," the website continues.
"She is a problem-solver with an ability to predict potential problems and troubleshoot arising issues seamlessly."