Police officer not guilty in driver assault case

A jury took only 90 minutes to find a rural Manawatu police officer not guilty of assaulting a man arrested for drink-driving.

At the end of the trial in the Palmerston North District Court today, Judge David Smith imposed a permanent name suppression order on both the officer and the arrested man.

Outside court the officer referred questions to Police Association Manawatu branch chairman Detective Ashley Gurney, who said:

“We are grateful for the jury verdict.

"We now have an employment matter to deal with the police so we can’t comment further at this time.”

The officer was accused of reacting to verbal provocation and twice striking the arrested man in the back of a patrol car, after he had been detained for drunk-driving and refusing to accompany police.

The Crown said back at the police station the officer “propelled” the arrested man, who was restrained with handcuffs, into his cell, causing him to hit his face and chest on the floor.

The defence argued the policeman was acting in self defence and with reasonable force in situations that are “not tiddlywinks”.

The arrested man had tried to head butt the officer in the patrol car and again at the police station.

There was no dispute that the arrested man - who was driving with a breath alcohol level of 668 micrograms, the limit is 400mcg - directed foul language towards the police officers when he was stopped.

He called them “pigs”, used other blue language and made sexual comments.

Crown prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk, who urged the jury not to sympathise with the officer’s plight, said the arrested man’s behaviour provoked a reaction from the officer.

But there was no physical resistance from the arrested man, Mr Vanderkolk said.

“This was a drunken man with sad, drunken grievances.”

In the back of the patrol car there was no attempted headbutt before the officer lashed out with two jabs and possibly his elbow.

“The Crown says it was a gratuitous blow… when [the arrested man] was deeply offensive or sexually offensive.”

In the police station the officer took the arrested man to the cell by a choke hold that could have lead to a loss of consciousness, the prosecutor said.

“[The arrested man] was held up by the neck and the force used was dangerous. The Crown says he was suspended almost.”

Mr Vanderkolk said the policeman had previously lied to a courtroom about the night in question, saying he didn’t search the prisoner when he had and had walked him to the cell.

Defence lawyer Mike Antunovic said his client had not expected the issue to be raised at a hearing that was about the arrested man’s actions towards him in the back of the patrol car.

He reminded the jury that the Crown must prove all allegations beyond reasonable doubt and that it was up to the Crown to show there was no element of self defence.

While the jury had seen closed-circuit TV footage of what occurred, it was only when it was slowed down that the arrested man’s attempts to resist could be seen, Mr Antunovic said.

“[The arrested man] was the author of his own misfortune.”

The slowed-down version also showed that the officer did not throw a punch, as the Crown had claimed was possible when Mr Vanderkolk opened the case.

In both cases the police man used “justified force” as a form of self defence from attempted headbutts where the arrested man had “lashed out suddenly and unexpectedly”.

Mr Antunovic reminded the jury that the policeman had previously been headbutted by a handcuffed prisoner in the back of a patrol car.

“It’s hard for us to appreciate what it’s like out there at night on the frontline dealing with all sorts of difficult people. As Tana Umaga would say, it’s not tiddlywinks,” Mr Antunovic said.

“[The officer] had to make his decision in a few split seconds. He didn’t have the luxury of sitting around in a courtroom discussing it.”

Manawatu Standard