Craigavon Magistrates Court heard three videos recorded on 18 July were initially sent to just ten people in a private WhatsApp group but that within days, the videos had been seen ‘globally’.
Imposing a two month jail term on Andrew Tortolani, District Judge Greg McCourt said he was suspending it for a year because the 56-year-old had admitted his guilt and had himself experienced ‘harm and distress’ in the form of online abuse.
Also ordering Tortolani to pay a £350 fine and a £15 offenders levy, the judge said the case served as a warning to everyone that ‘those who misuse communications in this way are facing prison’.
Tortolani, from Sandringham in Portadown, was due to go on trial charged with the improper use of a public communication network on 18 July this year by sending a ‘message or other matter was indecent’ but defence counsel Damien Halleron told the court: “I’m instructed to enter a guilty plea to the single count.”
A prosecuting lawyer told the court that on 19 July, a woman contacted the police to report she had been made aware ‘a taxi driver had apparently shared videos of her and her date being intimate in the back of a taxi’.
He explained how the videos had been recorded on a ‘security camera facing back towards the passenger seat’ and had been recorded the previous evening after the female passenger and her date had been collected by Tortolani from a Belfast bar.
The videos were not played to the court during the prosecution opening but they show the couple in the back seat engaging in a sex act with Tortolani in the foreground in the driver’s seat and when the male passenger pays the fare at the end of the video, he leaves a tip with the driver who is heard saying it was ‘cheaper than a room’.
In court, the lawyer outlined how the female passenger told police she had received the three videos from a friend who in turn had been sent them by WhatsApp, adding that it ‘became apparent that the videos had been shared widely, indeed reaching globally’.
The couple involved, said the lawyer, ‘claimed not to have known they were being filmed’ but in any event, they did not ‘give permission for the films to be shared’.
Tortolani was arrested and interviewed a week later on 26 July and he confirmed that ‘no one else had control of the footage, that he was the driver of the taxi and that he had sent the videos to a private WhatsApp group of ten friends without any expectation that the videos would be sent on’.
“He said he didn’t intend to cause any distress by doing so,” said the lawyer.
Lodging a plea in mitigation, Mr Halleron said the case serves as a ‘cautionary tale of the dangers of social media and how things can extrapolate out almost instantaneously’ but stressed that Tortolani’s culpability lies in him sharing it to a private WhatsApp group, not what transpired after that when they were seen ‘throughout the world’.
“There are clearly other individuals who are guilty of doing that but he comes before the court for the harm he caused,” said the defence barrister, highlighting that the case had attracted a ‘degree of publicity’ which had resulted in Tortolani and his family themselves being subjected to ‘grossly offensive’ online abuse.
As a result of the offence Tortolani’s 30 year career as a taxi driver is over Mr Halleron told the court, conceding that the footage is ‘serious and shocking’ but that the defendant has expressed remorse for the consequences of his actions.
Sentencing Tortolani, DJ McCourt said that ‘social media is in some ways very good but in many ways very bad and you have learned that lesson very clearly’.
He told Tortolani his ‘downfall’ was trusting people to be discreet but given what happened, “it seems clear that you should not have trusted them because it spread around and went everywhere, causing harm and distress to the people involved and had caused great difficulty for you in your job and reputation.”
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