Laser strike case: Judge takes aim at probation service

By Kieran Campbell

The green laser was shone into the cockpit of the Northland rescue helicopter. File photo / Greg Bowker
The green laser was shone into the cockpit of the Northland rescue helicopter. File photo / Greg Bowker

A judge has taken aim at probation officers who he fears are deciding how they think people should be punished.

Judge Nevin Dawson angrily criticised the probation officers in Auckland's District Court this morning for failing to follow his order for a pre-sentence report.

The Department of Corrections said it would investigate the incident.

Judge Dawson had requested the suitability for home detention be assessed in the pre-sentence reports for Joshua O'Hare-Knight and James Spiers, who were sentenced today to community service for laser light attacks on a police helicopter.

The pair, aged 19 and 17 respectively at the time, thought it would be a joke to shine the laser into the Police Eagle helicopter while they were at an 18th birthday party in Mt Albert in 2011.

The sentence was originally adjourned last month because the pre-sentence report had not been completed.

This morning Judge Dawson said the report that was finally completed was "extremely unhelpful" because it had ignored his order to consider home detention.

"There seems to be an attitude ... where they [the probation officers] decide on what they think the sentence should be and therefore don't report on aspects asked for by the judge, and therefore limit the sentencing options of a judge," Judge Dawson said.

"It's not the Probation Service's role to limit the sentencing options available to the court, especially when those options have been requested.

"If that is the case then I'm extremely annoyed about it. It better not be the case that that is their intention.

"The court gives a clear indication of what is required and that's what's expected in the report."

Operations manager community probation, northern region, Alastair Riach said the district manager was investigating the case.

It was the second complaint this year from the Auckland district that the department had received from judges about pre-sentencing reports, he said.

The department provided the courts with about 260 pre-sentencing reports each month, he said.

"No disciplinary action has been required as a result of complaints about unsatisfactory pre-sentencing reports in the Auckland District."

When quality of reports is identified as needing improvement, training and coaching is provided by managers or practice leaders to probation officers in scheduled professional development sessions, Mr Riach said.

During O'Hare-Knight and Spiers' trial last year, Crown prosecutor Asishna Prasad said the pair took turns shining the laser into the cockpit, and flashed it at the helicopter about six times for between five and 10 seconds each time.

Ms Prasad said even as the helicopter flew over O'Hare-Knight and Spiers to investigate, the pair continued the inflict "very intense flashes" on the cockpit.

"It could have had catastrophic consequences."

Today, Spiers was sentenced to 140 hours' community service and O'Hare-Knight 160 hours.

Their sentence was not the deterrent the industry had been hoping for, Air Line Pilots Association President Glenn Kenny told Radio New Zealand.

However, he supported government efforts to ban the importation and sale of some lasers.

"The Ministry of Health ... is consulting ... the restriction on the importation and sale of the high-end hand-held lasers, which we support.

"... There's also a private members bill that hopefully will get its first reading in the next few weeks that will actually make possession of them an offence as well, and we definitely support that legislation."

The number of laser strikes has significantly increased in recent years, from 23 reported in 2007 to 100 reported in 2011.

- APNZ

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