Police defend handling of 'looter' case

CHARGES DROPPED: Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp
CHARGES DROPPED: Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp

Police need to review how they handle cases involving people with autism after charges were dropped against an autistic man accused of looting after February's earthquake, advocates say.

Police yesterday withdrew charges in the Christchurch District Court, sitting at the Maori Land Court, against Arie Smith-Voorkamp and his partner and alleged co-offender, Michael Anthony Davis.

The pair were arrested after being caught in a cordoned building on Lincoln Rd, three days after the February 22 earthquake.

It was later revealed that Smith-Voorkamp had Asperger's syndrome, which caused him to compulsively collect light fittings.

Police said it had initially appeared in the public interest to prosecute the men, but a report explaining Smith-Voorkamp's diminished responsibility due to his condition arrived only last Thursday.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Alison Molloy said the case had helped increase awareness about Asperger's syndrome, but police needed to review how they dealt with those who had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

"The publicity has caused people to examine their ideas of how the justice system should work when dealing with someone who has a developmental disorder that affects their behaviour, communication and socialising skills."

She hoped the case would encourage police to include a segment on dealing with ASD into their training, and said Autism New Zealand would be happy to work on such a plan with the police.

Green Party human rights spokesman Keith Locke called for a full review into how police handled cases involving people with autism or Asperger's syndrome.

"If the police had acted in an appropriate manner in the Smith-Voorkamp case, they would never have proceeded beyond arrest to a charge."

Acting assistant commissioner of operations Dave Cliff said he believed the processes already in place were satisfactory.

Police would ask for a psychiatric assessment from the courts if they believed it was needed, but it was up to the courts to order those. "Police can't say `you look like you have a mental condition'. You can't have that; we have to be objective."

In Smith-Voorkamp's case, the police had needed to keep an open mind until his psychiatric report came back, Cliff said.

"We don't have a lot of people with Asperger's syndrome committing offences all around the country. It's really rare."

Cliff said he "totally backed" the officers involved in the arrests after the men "were, on the face of it, caught in the act of burglary".

The pair initially ran from police and were forced to the ground to be handcuffed.

Smith-Voorkamp had "a bang to the side of his face" and the pair had been affected by alcohol at the time of arrest, Cliff said.

The decision to charge the pair also took into account the need to deter others from looting and heightened public safety concerns after the quake, Cliff said.

Police were later told about Smith-Voorkamp's Asperger's syndrome, he said, but had to follow "due process" under the Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired) Persons Act 2003.

Because a medical assessment was not ordered by the courts, an agreement had to be reached with Smith-Voorkamp's lawyer for an independent report.

Police received a copy of the forensic psychiatric report only last Thursday, which concluded Smith-Voorkamp had diminished responsibility at the time.

Police gave Davis the "benefit of the doubt" after the report's findings added credibility to his claim that he was there to look after his partner.

Outside court yesterday Smith-Voorkamp said he was now able to get on with his life "without being worried about anything". He said he had been scared about facing the burglary charges.

Defence counsel Jonathon Eaton said Smith-Voorkamp had unfairly become the face of looting.

He had spent 11 nights in custody and six months on bail, while his partner spent six weeks in custody, for what was "literally the theft of two light bulbs"."Things got a little lost in the system. It was treated as just another earthquake case. There was no careful or close scrutiny of the case."

Eaton said Smith-Voorkamp had no interest in pursuing an early allegation that he was assaulted by the police at the time of his arrest. "During the trauma of the arrest he wasn't exactly sure how that had occurred."

The Press