Courtroom Two: the day after the long weekend before

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

It was apparently a normal day after the weekend before at the Alice Springs Magistrates Court, perhaps a little busier given that this was a long weekend. The word was also that there had been a recent royalty payment that had brought people into town.

The police prosecutor arrived in Courtroom Two with a trolley as big as a baby buggy, full of files. These were the fresh matters. The files in the stands on bar table were the matters already scheduled (13 domestic violence, two Smart Court, 59 criminal, and 11 Youth Court).

Half of the defendants were in the watchhouse, Magistrate John Birch was told. Only one lawyer is  allowed in at a time, so there was a bottleneck with the paperwork.  That was hardly surprising, said Magistrate Birch, given that there were 150 people on the list!

Defence lawyers, from Legal Aid and Aboriginal Legal Aid, milled around, attempting to bring matters on.

There was confusion over files. One man in the dock had the impression that he had already done time for his matter; his lawyer was investigating.

The police prosecutor advised that another man had actually been in gaol at the time of the offending, so that charge was dismissed.

Another charge was dismissed for want of prosecution.

A lawyer attempted to bring on a youth justice matter (the one I was waiting for – see separate report).

“I don’t have the file,” said Magistrate Birch.

He read out the list of youth justice matters he had files for. All of the lawyer’s matters were ones that he did not have.

‘Has anybody seen Mr T.?’

The court orderly was sent in search of other defence lawyers, returning to report that she couldn’t find them.

She also had to announce numerous non-appearances. Some of these matters were dealt with anyway (“ex parte”), the offenders convicted and fined, their files put away.

Many matters were adjourned to allow time for defence lawyers to make representations to police prosecutions; others because the facts of the matter were to be contested.

In the midst of all this, some parties appeared and matters were heard – sorry tales that flesh out some of the offending behind the ‘law and order’ debate, tales of people, young and not so young, male and female, and their failings. On this day and for as much of the list as I observed all of the defendants were Aboriginal. This is not always the case.

A 52 year old man was facing an aggravated assault charge. The victim was his wife. He had – out of the blue and “inexplicably” except for the fact that he had had a lot to drink – hit her with a frying pan. They’d been together for 34 years, had three grown children and a grandchild. He had no record of violence. It was the first time he’d done anything like it and was “totally ashamed”, his lawyer said.

He was however still within the operative period of a suspended sentence for high range drink driving, that offence having occurred over 12 months ago. He clearly has a drinking problem.

The man works regularly as a mechanic in his home community and has done for the past 15 years. His wife attended court and had written a letter in support of him.

Magistrate Birch told the man’s lawyer to make enquiries about the possibility of him serving a community work order. The lawyer reported back later in the day that there is no possibility for the man to do this in his community and he has nowhere to stay in Alice Springs. Magistrate Birch had no choice but to look at a custodial sentence. The man got two months’ gaol, suspended immediately with a good behaviour bond for 12 months.

It was the first occasion of this kind of trouble, “make sure it is the last”, Magistrate Birch told the defendant: “You’ve got a good marriage, don’t throw it away because of alcohol.”

Sleeping in the creek

A young man, 18 years old, was charged with medium range drink driving, driving without a licence (he has never held one) and breach of bail. He pleaded guilty to all charges.

The court heard that he had grown up on a remote outstation but came into town following his mother, who was expecting to be allocated a house soon by Territory Housing. In the meantime he had been sleeping in the creek near Hoppy’s camp and had been “exposed to alcohol”. On the day of the offending family members had been sharing a 24-can slab. He had got behind the wheel because everyone else was more intoxicated than he was, the court was told. His breach of bail was for failure to appear in court – that was because his then girlfriend had taken him to Adelaide.

Magistrate Birch gave him a lecture, urging him not to listen to the “humbug” of family members. He fined him, disqualified him from driving for 12 months and, if he obtains a licence after that, it will have to be an alcohol ignition lock licence for a further 12 months.

A man described as “boisterous” but a “good man” was in court for contravening a domestic violence order.

Restrained from having any form of contact with the “protected person” – his partner of nine years – he had gone to her house and spoken to her, accusing her of being unfaithful to him.

His lawyer told the court that according to the man, his partner had asked him to come around and he had in fact gone to the police seeking a domestic violence order against her – “it’s beyond me why”, said the lawyer. Their to-ing and fro-ing has been “going on for years”, the lawyer said. His client had done time, one month, for a violent assault – throwing a plate of chops at his niece. After this event he was thrown out of the house – “women are always throwing him out”, said the lawyer. He was found, sleeping in a suburban park with his partner, the victim of seven previous assaults by him over the last six years. But he’s a “person coming around”, said his lawyer, controlling his drinking, and “looking much better for it”. Furthermore, he’s working as an air-conditioning mechanic.

Magistrate Birch thought it would be remiss to do nothing about the DVO breach, ignoring the lawyer’s submission that the order was not “productive”. He extended the order for another year and sentenced the man to seven days in gaol.

$600 worth of damage for $200 worth of grog

The case against a man  who had broken into the Town and Country Tavern was also heard. The venue on Todd Mall (now closed) has famously been subject to many break-ins. This one took place on February 3 this year. The man had been drinking with a friend. At 12.30am they went looking for more grog. The accused had picked up a rock and smashed the front door of the tavern. The pair entered and stole alcohol worth $200, while damaging property worth $600. Enjoyment of their booty was short-lived, as they were arrested not long afterwards in the vicinity of the Civic Centre.

The accused had come to town from a remote community to play football. His subsequent binge drinking-fuelled break-in was a “very popular type of offending”, Magistrate Birch told him, causing a lot of problems for businesses in Alice Springs. His behaviour was also offensive to Alice Springs traditional owners, said the magistrate, suggesting that the accused would be offended if someone behaved in his community as he had done here.

He was sentenced to six months in gaol, suspended after two months with a good behaviour bond for the next 14 months. Upon his release from gaol he must got to CAAAPU for alcohol rehabilitation. Magistrate Birch declined to order restitution as he had only limited information about the damage before him.

An odd charge on the list attracted my attention: among multiple offences associated with a house break-in a youth was charged with wearing “articles of disguise” – “namely a pair of socks”. What disguise could they offer, I wondered. It turned out that he had put the socks on his hands so as not to leave fingerprints. He continued to wear them as he went joy-riding in a car stolen from the premises, with a bunch of other young people on board, at 100 kms an hour in the rural area. He ultimately lost control of the car, and the damage he caused to it forced him to stop shortly afterwards. This youth was tall, good-looking, well-dressed, from a prominent family, supported in court …

Then suddenly, the matter I was waiting for was on in another court. So how Magistrate Birch dealt with this case I can’t say.

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