'Phoney' checkpoint a direct challenge to NZ's freedoms

4:28 pm on 27 October 2016

Opinion - The IPCA's take on the police's use of a fake breath-testing checkpoint to gather data on euthanasia supporters is likely to be severe - and so it should be, writes Jarrod Gilbert.

Senior Sergeant Tania van Ooyen at an alcohol checkpoint in Mana, Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Police have admitted they used a phoney breath-testing checkpoint to gather intelligence on people leaving a meeting of euthanasia supporters in Lower Hutt.

The police's actions have been slammed by ACT leader David Seymour - who has sponsored a bill seeking to legalise euthanasia in New Zealand - as 'un-Kiwi'.

On that basis, anybody concerned by the police acting illegally and running roughshod over the fundamental principles that underpin democracy is 'Kiwi as'.

While many people might not appreciate the seriousness of the matter, the police eventually have. Quite remarkably, they have turned themselves in to the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA). And make no bones about it, the IPCA report will likely be severe, and so it should be.

The police have the powers under the Land Transport Act to stop people and breathalyse them. That act, however, does not allow police to use roadblocks to simply gather intelligence. At face value, the police have unlawfully detained people and have broken the law.

Having police stop and ask you for your papers - some form of ID - is something we associate with authoritarian states, for very good reason. Such countries where this occurs do not enjoy a Bill of Rights as we do. Citizens of New Zealand have freedom of association, freedom of expression and the freedom of movement.

The police's actions are a direct challenge to those freedoms. It is quite conceivable some people will now feel hesitant to go to a public meeting to discuss or learn about an issue currently before Parliament, because they will be concerned that police will be collecting their details.

This is completely unacceptable in an open democracy.

While police can mount a defence of going after elderly people who might end their lives or help others do so - after all, helping someone end their life is still currently illegal - they have to do so within the powers the state gives them.

Police say they thought long and hard about this operation. If so, those who concluded it was a good idea showed incredibly poor judgement.

Knowing the extent of police powers under the Land Transport Act, and being able to appreciate the importance of the New Zealand Bill of Rights are things every beat cop should know. The only comfortable thing about this is that smarter brains within police have prevailed and the organisation has moved quickly on this, when the extent of the error was realised.

We now await the IPCA report to find out how exactly this occurred and for the authority's recommendations. The police will do well to swiftly make whatever changes are necessary to avoid this type of thing occurring again.

And if that's all that happens, then they will be thanking their lucky stars. There is a clear case here for the police to be sued. And while being over-litigious isn't a particularly Kiwi trait, anybody taking action will be defending particularly important Kiwi principles.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

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