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Indigenous Law Bulletin

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Friend, Stephen --- "A Check on Police Brutality: Vernon Moran, the State of New South Wales and the Police" [2002] IndigLawB 27; (2002) 5(16) Indigenous Law Bulletin 20

A Check on Police Brutality:

Vernon Moran, the State of New South Wales and the Police[1]

by Stephen Friend

Mr Vernon Moran was arrested in the early hours of the morning on 14 January 1997 by Armidale Police and was taken to Armidale Police Station where he was charged with various offences. He was ‘escorted’ by Senior Constable Peter Connett. Mr Moran was slammed into a wall (he was rendered unconscious for a short period) and dragged by his hair into a cell by Constable Connett. The internal police station video camera monitoring the dock and cell area captured the above events on film.

The video was part of the evidence relied on by Mr Moran in relation to charges brought against him by the police. In those proceedings Mr Moran’s lawyers from the Aboriginal Legal Service sought to exclude evidence of alleged admissions on the basis of the conduct of Mr Connett before the admissions were made. Interestingly, the presiding magistrate refused to exclude the evidence of the admissions made later that morning in the police station.

After a complaint by the Aboriginal Legal Service to Police Internal Affairs, Mr Connett was charged with assault. The presiding Magistrate at Armidale Local Court upheld an application made on Mr Connett’s behalf pursuant to s 32 of the Mental Health (Criminal Procedure) Act 1900 (NSW) and Mr Connett was unconditionally discharged. Section 32 allows the magistrate to discharge the defendant unconditionally if it appears to the magistrate that the defendant is suffering from a mental condition during the course of the proceedings.

The video achieved notoriety when it was played in the District Court of New South Wales during civil proceedings that Mr Moran brought against the State of New South Wales (‘the State’). Mr Moran argued the State was vicariously liable for Mr Connett’s actions. The case was settled out of court.

Mr Moran was then called to give evidence on behalf of the State when it cross claimed against Mr Connett. It is understood that the cross claim, which was successful, was the first made against a police officer by the State in relation to an assault on a civilian. It is unknown at the date of writing whether any money has been recouped from Mr Connett or what enforcement proceedings the State has taken. After the commencement of the District Court civil proceedings Mr Connett left the police service and was thus not a member of the police service at the time the civil proceedings against him were heard.

The case is significant not just for the sheer brutality the police officer employed against Mr Moran at Armidale Police Station but also because the State, rather than divert its liability to Mr Moran, employed a new and significant tactic. The State’s decision to cross claim should serve as a subconscious reminder to all police that the State may not automatically cover payouts as a result of individual assaults by police officers whilst on the job. However, this case may turn out to be a one off as police assaults are usually not recorded on film, which provide corroboration of the victim’s version of events. Often the victim has engaged in criminal conduct themselves, and credibility is usually a live issue.

The New South Wales Court of Appeal has in the last couple of years made it clear that contemptuous disregard for citizen’s rights will involve heavy payouts of exemplary damages.[2] The State, having been stung in its own hip pocket, may now have come to realise the hip pocket nerve is a productive way of curbing the volatility of individual police officers. While this may curb police behaviour, victims of police brutality would surely most benefit from having a video in every corner of every police station and trained on every arrest.

Stephen Friend is the principal lawyer of Friend & Co Lawyers in Waterloo, Sydney. He acted for Vernon Moran in his District Court case.

[1] Unless otherwise specified the cases referred to in this article are unreported cases in the District or Local Court.

[2] Lee v Kennedy (2000) NSW CA 153.

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