Friday, May 23, 2014

Not in the public interest

When TV3 reported on Wednesday night that Judith Collins' had been accused of unlawful posession of a pistol over her infamous photo, I thought it pointed to a clear (though technical) breach of the law. Like machine guns, pistols are highly illegal; while there are sporting uses, their only real purpose is to kill people, and so you need a special licence to own one. Unlawful possession is a serious offence, punishable by up to three years imprisonment. Collins was in possession of a pistol, and that possession did not fall under any of the relevant exemptions; she was not under supervision on the range of an incorporated pistol club, and she was not a member of the Police, NZDF, or other relevant body.

Despite that, it is also clear that prosecution is not in the public interest. If it had been a normal firearm, there would have been no breach. Any illegality was technical, did not cause harm, and may have been invited by police. If brought to trial, the appropriate penalty would likely be a discharge without conviction. Looking at the Solicitor-General's Prosecution Guidelines, it clearly fails every one of the s5.8 public interest considerations for prosecution, and meets the first three of the s5.9 public interest considerations against prosecution. Under these circumstances, I don't think we can blame the police for not pressing charges.

What we can blame them for is their handling of the complaint. Their curt dismissal shows that they do not understand the law and do not accept that a technical breach occurred. It suggests an unpleasant (and inappropriate) subservience to the Minister, and feeds the public perception that they serve power, not the law. Instead, the police should have accepted a technical breach, explained that prosecution would not be in the public interest, and undertaken to ensure that it did not occur again. They should also have immediately sought an amendment to the law to ensure that people are not exposed to prosecution - because this applies to a lot more people than Judith Collins. Ever been to an NZ Army open day and played with their toys? Congratulations, you're technically guilty of possession of a military style semi-automatic firearm - an offence which unlike pistols has not even the implication of a supervision clause. These kids? They're technically guilty of possession of a restricted weapon.

No matter what you think of the military using its weapons as PR tools, that's not a good situation. The government may want to look at an amendment ASAP.