Gang patch bill criticised

PALOMA MIGONE
Last updated 13:50 07/11/2012

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A bill aimed at banning gang patches from government and local government building denies people the right to express themselves freely, the Law Society says.

Parliament's law and order committee today heard the first submissions on Rotorua-based National MP Todd McClay's Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill.

McClay told the committee he drafted the legislation to "reduce the intimidation" of gangs who "collectively poison our children by manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, who rob or rape and cause misery".

The bill was not a silver bullet, but was a message to gangs that their abuse was not acceptable, he said.

However, Robert Hesketh, from the Law Society's Human Rights and Privacy Committee, said the bill would hinder people's right of expression.

The definition of gang insignia and display were too widely defined and could capture groups that have no sinister purpose, he said.

"It's probably without doubt that wearing or otherwise displaying insignia, and that includes gang insignia, ... communications membership and commitment to a group whether that is a gang or otherwise."

"It's an illustration of the right of freedom of expression. One may not agree with what another person expresses, but certainly the right to have and convey that expression is guaranteed by our Bill of Rights Act."

Hesketh also said the bill would give the Minister of Police powers to criminalise groups by being able to add them on the bill's list of gangs without further debate in Parliament.

"The recommendation first is that the bill not go beyond the committee stage, but if it does, there ought to be some amendments."

Hesketh said there was already legislation in place that addressed McClay's concerns including laws against trespassing and unlawful assembly.

McClay told the committee current laws weren't enough and often left it to people in the community to stand up to gangs.

He said the bill was a warning to gangs to not wear patches in government buildings, and members would know they had broken the law if they did.

"It will also offer police a tool to fight organised crime," he said.

New Zealand Police Association president Greg O'Connor, who supports the bill, told the committee the presence of gangs in communities was "very real".

"This bill, while it's no panacea, it needs to be part of a whole suite of other legislation," he said.

''An arrest of something relatively minor like this, would probably only result in a fine, but it could also result in the loss of the patch and that patch is an extremely important part of that gang's identity.

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"It's all about the patch. People die for disrespecting the patch, so don't underrate that."

O'Connor said the bill was a "small, but effective" way to show gangs their intimidation would not be tolerated.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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