The woman at the centre of the burqa row, Carnita Matthews, has a long record of driving offences and a history of not paying her fines.
Court documents have revealed that she had been fined seven times for traffic infringements before she was stopped by police in June last year for not displaying her P-plates in the incident that sparked the row that spilled over to the District Court yesterday.
Since she first received her learner licence in 1998 at the age of 33, she has twice had her provisional licence suspended for totting up too many demerit points and twice had her licence suspended for non payment of fines.The State Debt Recovery Office had to recover the fines. Both of those two suspensions for non payment of fines were later lifted.
It is not known how many times she was physically stopped by police and whether she had her face covered by a burqa or a niqab on those occasions. A number of times she was caught on camera speeding and disobeying traffic lights.
After being stopped by police last year for not displaying her P-plates, Ms Matthews was ordered to pay $276 in fines and court costs.
She claimed on Channel Seven and allegedly in a statutory declaration to Campbelltown police that the officer who stopped her had attempted to tear the burqa off her face, a claim that was proven untrue by the police patrol car video camera.
A magistrate last year found her guilty of making a deliberately false statement and sentenced her to jail for six months. Ms Matthews appealed, saying there was no proof she was the person in the burqa making the atatement and Judge Clive Jeffreys in the District Court yesterday upheld her appeal.
The news comes as women wearing a burqa may be ordered to remove it to identify themselves in the wake of the Carnita Matthews case.
Police Minister Mike Gallacher has revealed that police do not currently have the legal power to require women to show their face if the women refuse on religious or cultural grounds.
He said he wanted the law tightened up.
“Police powers in relation to face coverings are not clear,” Mr Gallacher said.
“It’s time to address that.”
He said he had spoken to rank and file police who wanted the situation clarified.
Any decision on whether to appeal the controversial judgment by Judge Clive Jeffreys would not be made until after the judge hands down the reason for his decision which is expected tomorrow.
The government is also considering passing new laws requiring people who make complaints against police, or in the case of witnesses giving evidence, to have to provide at least one fingerprint and their signature.
This follows the finding by the judge that he could not be certain that it was Ms Matthews who made the statutory declaration complaining about the officer who stopped her car because the person who handed the document in to the police station wore a burqa.
Mr Gallacher said he was waiting until Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione returned next week to discuss exactly what needed to be done.
He said he did not expect this to inflame community anger about women wearing full face coverings.
He said he had been told that there was nothing in Muslim culture or religion that stopped women from identifiying themselves in certain circumstances.
Yesterday, Ms Matthews avoided jail because her identity could not be proven.
Ms Matthews, 47, from Woodbine, in Sydney’s southwest, had been sentenced to six months in jail for making a deliberately false statement that a policeman tried to forcibly remove her burqa because he was a racist.
But judge Clive Jeffreys said yesterday he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was Mrs Matthews who made the racism accusation because the person who complained to police was wearing a burqa at the time.
The absurdity of the law is that, to reach the level of proof of identity to make the case, Mrs Matthews would have been required to identify herself by lifting her burqa at the police station–what started the uproar in the first place.
More than a dozen Muslim supporters linked arms and began chanting “Allah Akbar” as they stormed out of Downing Centre Court with Mrs Matthews concealed behind them.
Tempers rose and they began jostling with police after several members of the group attacked cameramen.
It marked a stark difference from their behaviour minutes earlier, when they had quietly assembled outside the lifts for prayer shortly after the judge’s decision.
Mrs Matthew’s lawyer Stephen Hopper defended their actions saying: “They are obviously happy with the result and are expressing it in a way that is culturally appropriate to them.”
Judge Jeffreys said yesterday that even if Mrs Matthews had made the complaint, he could not be sure she knew it was a “false” statement.
“I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that she made the complaint,” he said.
“Even if I was satisfied that she made the complaint, I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was knowingly false.”
Mrs Matthews made the claim in her court appearance last year, saying police could not prove it was her behind the burqa when the complaint was handed in to police. The local magistrate rejected it.
The case had lit up the religious debate when a magistrate found Mrs Matthews had deliberately made false complaints that Sergeant Paul Kearney was racist and had attempted to tear her burqa off her face when she declined to remove it on request.
She was pulled over for a random breath test last June, and accused Sgt Kearney of racism only after he booked her for failing to properly display her P-plates.
The incident was captured on a patrol car video camera and helped clear Sgt Kearney, prompting calls for all police cars to carry in-built cameras to avoid false claims.
“I’ve got my P-plates on my car . . . there was nothing wrong with how they were displayed,” Mrs Matthews says on the video.
“You look at me and see me wearing this and you couldn’t handle it. All cops are racist.”
She then threatens, “100 per cent”, that she will take the matter to court and fight the charge.
France was the first country in Europe to implement a full ban on covering up faces in public.
France’s burqa ban descended into farce when the first women to be summoned before a European court for illegally wearing the garments were refused entry, because they would not remove their face coverings.