Usually when the public feels outraged by an acquittal in a high profile trial, the response by the Justice Minister of the day is to defend the jury system. You know the drill – the jury were in the courtroom, they heard all the evidence, and by implication, the public doesn’t know what its talking about. Not so it seems, when the government gets a verdict on the Waihopai Three case that it doesn’t like. No word then from the Justice Minister about the wisdom and even-handedness of the jury. Instead, he moves to change the legal rules to ensure the authorities get their conviction the next time around
The rules in question are those to do with the so called ‘claim of right’ defence. This allows for circumstances where an ostensibly criminal act can be committed due to compelling higher reasons that can reasonably be said to justify the actions – breaking into private property say, to rescue a child from a burning building. Speeding to a hospital with an injured patient. Or in the Waihopai case, impeding activities that contribute to an illegal and unjust war and where – arguably – to do nothing is to be complicit.
The Waihopai Three put their case before the jury in the courtroom – and the jury weighed the evidence and reached the conclusion that the actions were reasonable. Justice Minister Simon Power clearly thinks this can’t be allowed. What he proposes – and typically for this government – the response is framed in terms of multiple options put out there to test how much flak they attract. The options range from raising the hurdle for a ‘claim of right’ defence, abolishing it altogether, or assuming the accused is guilty in such situations until they prove otherwise. In detail, the options are :
* Shifting the burden of proof — amending the definition so a defendant would have to prove they have a claim of right rather than the prosecution needing to prove they do not;
* Adding a reasonableness element — amending the definition of claim of right so a defendant would have to show that at the time of the offence their actions or beliefs were reasonable;
* Amending the offences that have claim of right as an element — amending some or all of the 14 offences in the Crimes Act that have claim of right as an element to ensure the defence is not wider than is appropriate;
* Adding a property interest criterion — amending the defence of claim of right so only a defendant with a legal claim to the property concerned could use the defence; and
* Repealing the defence — remove the claim of right defence from the Crimes Act so it is not available to any defendant in future.
The most outrageous options– in that they so clearly amount to payback for the Waihopai verdict – are the ones that shift the onus of proof to the accused, and that require a pre-existing property right to exist. In the latter situation, people could not damage other people’s property for a higher cause. (If this property option is chosen by Simon Power, it would be interesting to see if anyone in future could claim that as a taxpayer, they have an ownership stake in say, the Waihopai base, and thus have responsibility as citizens for any actions aided or abetted by this public property, in our name.)
Several things seem to be being forgotten in the politically driven rush to rejig the legal rules. With this display of petulance, the government is bringing the entire jury system into disrepute. To repeat: the jury heard the evidence from the Waihopai Three, tested whether it was reasonable – as the current situation allows it discretion to do – and reached a decision based on the facts before it. In future, the politicians and the courts can hardly complain if the public loses faith in a justice system where the powerful simply change the rules to get the convictions they want, while the public gets a lecture on tolerance and respect for juries whenever there is public outrage about an acquittal.
Secondly, it seems to be being overlooked that the war in Iraq is not legal. It was launched as a pre-emptive war waged on false grounds (ie, allegations about the existence of weapons of mass destruction) and without a proper UN mandate. Eminent legal authorities such as Lord Bingham, the outstanding former chief justice of the British House of Lords, hold this to be the case.
Therefore, the Waihopai Three were not so much committing a criminal act as impeding New Zealand’s possible complicity in the perpetuation of further criminal acts. The jury may well have felt that since the war is illegal, the proof burden on the accused was that much lower – and the need for distance by New Zealand from being tainted by association, was that much higher. If so, they were right to do so. Because the onus of proof regarding the complicity of our spy base in the Iraq war – or its non-complicity, if the spy base truly is making no contribution to the war effort – should rest to some extent at least, with the government.
In Power’s formulation though, defendants would have to shoulder all of that legal burden. So, if a future government wants to commit us to helping out in a war that is illegal under international law, will we – as citizens – be able to use a ‘claim of right’ defence in future? Not at all in the worst case scenario – if Power has his way – and only, at best, with extreme difficulty. The defence is likely to be available in future only if we can prove the illegality of the war in question beyond reasonable doubt, and prove the linkage of the property or actions in question, to it.
Yet surely, when this is contentious – as it usually is for years afterwards – there should be some onus on the government to demonstrate that its committal of our resources to such conflicts is legal – or is not happening at all? This is, again, another reason for not tilting the scales of justice arbitrarily in favour of the authorities. A jury should be left to hear both sides of the argument, on a level playing field. The law on ‘claim of right’ does not need to be changed, and should not be changed.
Reduce Violence : Arm the Police. Yeah, right.
The perennial calls to give the Police more and more firepower rests – as usual – on a dubious example. There is little reason to believe that the incident this week where two police officers and their dog were shot would have turned out any differently if the police had been armed. Well, it wouldn’t – given that guns were in the safe in this police car but were not felt to be necessary, until after the fact.
The only thing that would have changed the outcome in such cases would be if police carried arms and did their routine door knocks with arms drawn. That’s what tends to be forgotten – that the hardware changes the mode of policing. It will not simply be current policing modes with the back-up of having better protection for the officers concerned. The entire environment of policing would change, to something more akin to the American policing situation where nearly all policing is done with arms at the ready.
Do we really want the ‘Get out of car and keep your hands in plain sight’ policing at gunpoint of, say, traffic offences to become routine here? The result in the US has been an arms race between the police and criminals, and where all too often, nervous and trigger happy officers kill and wound citizens they are supposed to be protecting, or arresting (in the case of mental patients, addicts etc) without the use of extreme force.
The case for caution was made several years ago in the Hutt Valley, with two words : Paul Chase. In that incident, armed police entered a house in the early hours, and gunned down someone who seemed to have thought he was being attacked by intruders from a rival gang :
Former AOS member Murray Forbes says he will never forget it. In April 1983 he had just joined the squad. “The Paul Chase shooting in Petone was the first call out I ever had. The understanding we had was that it could well have been a gang place and for all we knew the firearm was still in the building. It was dark and we needed to go through all these stairs and bang on the door. We kicked the door in because he could well have had the firearm.”
Into the darkness appeared Paul Chase holding something the officer thought to be a gun and he fired a shot, but what had appeared to be a shot gun turned out to be a steel exercise bar.
Could have, might have – so shoot first. We have just given the Police tasers. Can we wait and see whether this reduces – or compounds – the climate of violence, before rushing into a further round of escalation?