‘He was just doing his job’: Commission finds police unfairly targeted solicitor
Human rights lawyers have voiced profound concern over reports that a specialist NSW Police task force targeted a solicitor with “deliberate, deceitful and malicious” harassment after learning false reports about a client he was representing in court.
In the early hours of a May 2019 morning, a solicitor noticed an unfamiliar police car drive past his house and, assuming that they were officers from the local station that he had an “extremely good” relationship with, waved. When they did not return his greeting and after noticing that he did not recognise them, warning bells went off.
Over the course of the next two days, the police officers would pull his vehicle over twice, inspect a taxi he had taken after they had defected his car, receive a notice for his motorcycle and observe them lingering outside his office. Intimidated, the solicitor told his client he was no longer equipped to represent him on animal cruelty charges.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) president Kerry Weste said that this intimidation by police of lawyers contravened a number of international human rights, including the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.
“The ability of lawyers to perform their professional obligations without fear of retribution by government actors is an absolutely essential element of our legal system and strikes at the very heart of democracy and the rule of law,” she said.
A report from the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) found that the two officers in the car, a constable and a senior constable, as well as their sergeant at the time, had engaged in serious misconduct. They were part of Strike Force Raptor, a task force put together to manage and prevent crime in outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Strike Force Raptor had charged the solicitor’s client with five animal cruelty charges and were frustrated that the solicitor had refused a request for them to give evidence over an audiovisual link. The sergeant – now inspector – said this refusal was “arrogant”, despite the solicitor needing them in person for complex evidence.
During a debriefing the night before, the sergeant allegedly said: “Let the solicitor know the whole of Raptor’s up here. He wanted Raptor. The whole of Raptor’s here.”
Despite there being insufficient evidence that the solicitor was associated in any way with the outlaw motorcycle gangs that could be identified as criminal conduct, the sergeant had advised the constable and senior constable to target him. They understood this to mean stopping him and issuing him with road infringement tickets.
The first came on the earliest morning, after the solicitor had agreed to tail a friend to a car repair shop and then drive her to her workplace. As he left his driveway, he noticed the police car began to follow him. When he drove into the repair shop, the officers pulled him over and the constable approached him.
The constable issued him a ticket for not indicating for five seconds before departing his driveway and then again for not having his licence on him. When the solicitor asked if he was with Strike Force Raptor – and with the knowledge he was not due to appear that day – he said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m against you guys today”. In response, the constable feigned surprise about the coincidence.
This first infringement notice was “deliberate, deceitful and malicious harassment” and fell under serious misconduct, the commission found. They added that had the solicitor indicated, given the location on his street and the surrounding consequences, it could have been “misleading and potentially dangerous”.
On his return to his house, the officers pulled him over again, this time to check his car for faults. After pointing out a supposed oil leak that the solicitor could not see – unusual given his years of experience with motor vehicles – the officers allegedly told him, “oh, you wouldn’t be able to see it” and issued a defect notice.
The officers then tailed his taxi to his office and pulled the taxi over as he left the car. Not too long after, the solicitor’s client arrived at his office and advised that there was a police car “doing laps” outside the building. When he went to observe, he saw them sitting on the bonnet of their car where they appeared to watch his building.
The constable told the commission that he could “not see why someone in the solicitor’s position would hold concerns for their welfare” at that stage but did concede that “the solicitor was probably concerned about any further interaction”.
When he appeared at the Local Court before his client’s matter, he informed the magistrate of what had happened to him that morning and sought an adjournment. The magistrate could “see I was shaken up” and granted it. The solicitor then told the client – who was searched outside the building – that he could not represent him.
“When he left, he saw between five to 10 Strike Force Raptor officers. He felt so intimidated that he asked the magistrate if he could use her exit, which she allowed,” the commission found in its report, acknowledging the stress of the situation.
The next day, despite dropping out of the case, he found the same police officers targeting the motorcycle he drove into his office because his car was still defected.
As the targeting tool could be “legitimate” under police policy, the commission did not wish to make findings about it being used in these circumstances. However, it said the “essential ingredient” for the actions would be “proper application”.
“This escaped the attention of the officers involved in this disgraceful conduct towards [the solicitor]. It was to involve the actual enforcement of the law, not the invention of breaches to achieve targeting. When misused, targeting can create a hostile relationship between police and citizens,” the commission found.
“Officers of the NSW police force are not entitled to interfere with the representation of a client by a solicitor or counsel because they do not approve of the client. Every person subject to a charge is entitled to legal representation.”
Ms Weste has called on Premier Gladys Berejiklian to ensure that NSW Police comply with international policies so that lawyers can work without interference.
“The LECC’s findings… are deeply troubling. The intimidation over a period of two days at the solicitor’s home, place of work and the NSW Local Court is not only an affront to international standards but undermines community trust in the NSW Police Force,” Ms Weste commented.