A Porirua lawyer may have set a legal precedent with far-reaching consequences after getting a $35 speeding ticket thrown out by a court.
In front of justices of the peace at Porirua District Court yesterday, barrister and solicitor Chris Ellis successfully argued his way out of the ticket, while never getting into a debate as to whether he was in fact speeding on State Highway 1 through Plimmerton, north of Wellington.
His submission was based on technicalities, including a claim that police manipulated evidence because they zoomed in on a photo of his number plate to read it.
He argued that the law required ''an image'' to show sufficient evidence of an offence. Neither of the two images provided by police showed enough evidence individually.
Ellis said his was a genuine complaint.
''A device goes off on the side of the road, and the next thing that happens is that a document is being offered to a judge by someone who has no idea how it was produced.
''And if the judge accepts it as evidence, the burden of proof is instantly reversed.''
Ellis saw this as the thin edge of a problem that would grow as electronic surveillance widened ''and we have legal provisions that treat digital images as gospel''.
Yesterday's case also rested on the precedent of a similar case he fought and won in 2012. He has challenged about 15 of his own tickets in the past 20 years, and usually offered to pay the equivalent of his fine to charity. About half his challenges were thrown out.
An experienced Wellington lawyer who regularly deals with traffic issues said yesterday's ruling was one against which police were likely to appeal ''because of its potential for far-reaching consequences'' for ''significant'' numbers of people in a similar situation.
Police were asked yesterday whether they planned to appeal, and how often they zoomed in on camera images. A spokesperson said: ''Police are currently considering the decision and have nothing to add at this stage.''
Auckland barrister Anton Heyns, also an experienced traffic lawyer, said the case would be unlikely to create a precedent, as it was in front of justices of the peace, who did not tend to set precedents.
A Ministry of Transport spokeswoman said district courts did not set a binding precedent on other district court cases. ''They may, however, be persuasive.''
It did not see any immediate need to consider a law change.
Automobile Association motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon said it appeared Ellis was in fact speeding and he had not disputed that.
But the case raised a legal loophole that might need to be closed through legislation. ''They [the laws] need to be doing the job they should be doing.''
Most motorists would simply acknowledge they were speeding and pay the ticket rather than taking it to court, he said.
He did not know how often police needed to zoom in to check number plates.
HOW HE DID IT
Speed camera in Plimmerton, north of Wellington, captures an image and prints speed, location, date and time on a ''data strip''. But it does not show Ellis's number plate. When he asks police for proof, they provide a zoomed-in image, but without the data strip.
Ellis argues the chain of evidence is suspect: the speed camera has a fixed focal length so existence of the zoom-in proves the original image had been ''digitally manipulated by persons who are not here in court''.
He mounts a challenge based on the Land Transport Act, which requires that ''an image'' be produced showing the vehicle on the road, its location, colour, and other details. He points out that the original image showed most of these things but did not identify the car, while the second image showed a number plate but offered no proof that an offence was being committed.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Speed cameras are issued to a vehicle owner. If you are not the driver, you can request the ticket is transferred to the driver.
People can request from police a free copy of the speed camera ticket.
If stopped by police using a radar gun, drivers can ask to see the reading. This will usually be offered, and refused only if there is a danger in doing so.
Any ticket can be disputed to the Police Infringement Bureau.
Any ticket can be challenged in court.
- The Dominion Post