Editorial: Mobile justice no answer to clogged courts

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Allotting police the power to dispense on-the-spot punishments for minor crimes has an obvious surface allure. Fingerprinting devices and digital equipment that allow police cars to become mobile stations now exist. Why not use the technology ? And why not seize the chance to reduce costs and manpower, and save time and free up police stations and the courts? Police officers could spend more time on the beat and less processing low-level offenders, and the justice system could handle the more serious crimes in a more timely manner. Regrettably, it is not that simple. Serious questions need to be answered before this aspect of the police's Fit for the Future project proceeds.

The most fundamental of these is the intrusion of the police into the separate bailiwicks that they and the courts traditionally occupy. The job of the police is to apprehend and arrest. It is then up to the courts to determine guilt or innocence. In the case of on-the-spot processing and punishment, the police would serve both roles. A fundamental tenet of the justice system would be breached, even if only, as the police suggest, for the likes of disorderly behaviour, vandalism, tagging and indecent exposure, which are now prosecuted under the Summary Offences Act.

But these are not totally insignificant matters. The likes of disorderly behaviour and indecent exposure often result in a conviction that, among other things, might bar a person from entry to the United States. In many cases, a trial, rather than a financial slap on the wrist from the police, is surely warranted. Yet officers, under pressure to save time and money, would be expected to deal with matters on the spot. Clearly, there would also be a sizeable onus on them to use their power in a fair way. The potential for abuse, in itself, suggests this is territory that should be avoided.

Furthermore, some of the other advantages cited by supporters of on-the-spot punishment appeal as more illusory than real. Defendants' time, as well as that of the police and the justice system, may be saved, but some may come to rue a spur-of-the-moment decision to accept a penalty. Equally, there is a downside to saving defendants the embarrassment of appearing in court. Since the time of pillories and stocks, even minor offending has been dealt with in a public way. This was designed to be a deterrent. The humiliation of a court appearance would disappear with mobile stations.

Auckland lawyer Peter Williams, QC, also suggests that where the police have this power in other countries, they often get in touch with social agencies. Rather than offenders simply being processed through the court, their underlying problems, such as alcohol and drug addiction, are addressed. That appears a somewhat idealised prospect. Logically, social agencies have more opportunity to become involved through the formal courtroom process than through ad hoc advice from the police. If this is not happening, it points to shortcomings in that process, rather than suggesting a reason for wider police powers.

Deputy Commissioner Rob Pope says this is all about responding to the Government's request for value for money in police services. It may also appeal to the police as a way of quickly and easily increasing the number of offenders brought to book.

But neither benefit justifies disregarding a tried and trusted separation of powers. The police say they wish to tackle only minor offending. But if what are, in reality, mobile stations and courtrooms take root, there will always be the temptation to extend their orbit and their powers. That is why punishment without trial should be nipped at the outset. However clogged the courts and however stretched the police resources, this is not the answer.

- NZ Herald

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