Thu, 08 Sep 2011 10:55a.m.
By Nandor Tanczos
A young man I know was in court recently. He and some friends were drinking round the back of a sports club and they decided to smash a window. It was typical dumb drunk stuff and they deserved to get caught. He didn't deserve a conviction for attempted burglary, which was what the police charged him with.
I asked the police prosecutor how he justified an attempted burglary charge when the window was visibly barred and impossible to enter. He said that if the window hadn't been barred he was pretty sure the kids would have tried to get inside.
I don't need to mention that the young guy was Maori. Of course he pleaded not guilty, on the reasonable basis that he wasn't trying to burgle the place, he was just being a vandal. The case dragged on for about a year, wasting police and court time and costing who knows how much money. Eventually, frustrated over police delays and deferred proceedings, he pleaded guilty on the promise of a community sentence. I guess you could call it conviction by attrition. If the charge had been wilful damage or some such, however, there would have been a guilty plea and the case could have been dealt with straight away.
For me it was just another example of why prosecuting practise needs to change. The case didn't make the national news, but it illustrated the point just as well as the infamous case of the autistic light bulb collector Cornelius Smith-Voorkamp. Mr Smith-Voorkamp was accused of being a looter, detained in custody for 11 nights (and his partner for 6 weeks) and prosecuted for 6 months before the case was dropped in August. All for taking two light bulbs. Then there is the case of singer Tiki Taane who was charged in April with disorderly behaviour likely to incite violence. He sang the NWA song 'Fuck the police' while police were in the club he was performing at. The case was dropped this week but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the police deliberately wasted months of court time and fistfuls of public money for a bit of personal revenge.
The Minister of Justice Simon Power, like Justice Ministers before him, has recently introduced changes to the legal aid rules in a bid to cut costs. It's time his officials pointed out to him that a more effective, although less populist, way to cut spending on lawyers, as well as get the courts running more smoothly, would be to crack down on ridiculous prosecutions.
The problem is that the police seem to lose perspective. That's understandable – they are in the thick of things. But it means that we cannot rely on the police to not prosecute matters that just shouldn't ever go to court. It means we cannot rely on the police to always lay charges that are in proportion to the offense that was actually committed.
That's without even mentioning those cases where police perjury is involved, such as when then-senior constable Neil Robert Ford caused a traffic accident, lied about it and persuaded a colleague to blame the victim. Shane Cribb, 17, was charged and found guilty. Mr Cribb and his supporter Steve Potter spent 5 years fighting for justice. After it was over Mr Potter said that he worked out what really happened within days of the accident. He commented that "If I could see what was gapingly wrong, why couldn't the authorities? That's the thing that I really still struggle with."
This case also demonstrates that the police find it hard to make objective decisions when it comes to prosecuting police officers who may have broken the law. The failure of the police to prosecute Constable Abbott after he shot Steve Wallace dead in Waitara in 2000 is another example. The family had to bring a private prosecution before the legality of that killing could be tested, even though the courts found there was a prima facie case.
We have to take prosecuting decisions out of the hands of the police. We need an independent Public Prosecutors Office with responsibility for deciding when to prosecute and what charges to lay. The job of the police should be to investigate crime, interview suspects and gather evidence. Having a prosecutors office which can then evaluate the evidence without any prior stake in the case would clear the crap out of the courts as well as give citizens a bit more protection from malicious prosecutions. Who knows, it might even have saved those Operation 8 defendents who have just had their cases dropped after four years of legal hell.