Watchdog Finds that Police Harassment of Lawyer Was “Serious Misconduct”, But Does Not Recommend Dismissal

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

A northern New South Wales lawyer thought it strange when a NSW police vehicle with two male officers drove past his suburban home at 6.30 am on 28 May 2019. This was firstly because there was no reason for them to be there at that time and, secondly, because they didn’t return the wave he gave them.

At around 7 am, his then partner turned up asking him to drive with her to the local Beaurepaires tyre store, as she was going to leave her car there to have a new set put on. Then he could drive her to the office, as they’re both lawyers, who nearby one another.

On the way to Beaurepaires, the lawyer noticed the same police car following him. As he pulled up at the tyre store, the officers also stopped. A constable got out of the vehicle and approached the lawyer’s car. The officer asked to see his driver licence, which he’d forgotten in his hurry.

The officer explained that the lawyer had not indicated when pulling out of his driveway and he also identified himself as being part of Strike Force Raptor.

The lawyer then remarked that he was opposing officers from the same strike force in court that day. To which the constable replied that he was unaware of any connection between his unit and the legal professional.

An anti-motorcycle club crime unit

Strike Force Raptor was established in March 2009, following a brawl between two rival motorcycle clubs at Sydney Airport, which saw a member of the Hells Angels killed.

The elite police unit was specifically designed to investigate crime related to motorcycle clubs.

Having previously been part of the Criminal Groups Squad, Strike Force Raptor became a standalone unit on 22 February this year.

At the time, NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said that it’s track record is exemplary, and its policing strategies are “relentless, high-impact and in-your-face”.

The lawyer stopped by officers at Beaurepaires was representing a motorcycle club member in the NSW Local Court on that same day. The bikie client was facing five animal cruelty charges laid against him as a result of an investigation by Strike Force Raptor.

NSW police had requested that relevant officers could appear at the regional courthouse via audio-visual link. However, the lawyer – the principal lawyer at a local criminal law firm – required the officers in person as the case involved evidence regarding directions and measurements.

Intimidation continues

The lawyer later testified before the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) on 12 February last year that he “smelled a rat” at Beaurepaires, as the two officers requiring his driver licence were from the same strike force he was up against, but they weren’t involved in the proceedings.

So, he decided to drive home and pick up his licence. But, on the way, the officers followed and pulled him over. They said they wanted to perform a roadworthiness check on his car. The police then issued a defect notice for a faulty seatbelt, an oil leak and a window tinting issue.

The defect notice appeared suspect to the lawyer, as he couldn’t locate an oil leak, yet he would have expected to as he’d previously been the owner a service station, as well as having been a speedway driver. And the lawyer and his partner had to walk the rest of the way home.

The pair then took a taxi to work. The same police car tailed the cab. As the lawyer got out of the taxi, the officer driving flicked his headlights on, so the legal professional inquired if they wanted something, although the officers said they didn’t. The police then conducted a check of the taxi.

The lawyer’s client showed up at his office at 8.30 am. He told the lawyer that the police were doing laps of the carpark. The lawyer went out the front and saw the two officers – the constable and a senior constable – leaning on the bonnet of their vehicle staring at him.

The lawyer exited his office via the backdoor. He went to his partner’s office. She called the local police. They informed her they were powerless to do anything.

The lawyer subsequently went to the courthouse and told the magistrate what was happening. So, she adjourned the case, noting the lawyer “was shaken up”.

A targeted approach

The LECC is the sole police oversight body in NSW. It commenced operations on 1 July 2017. The commission replaced the functions of several other police watchdog bodies in an effort to streamline inquiries into police misconduct complaints and critical incident investigations.

The independent statutory body received a complaint from a lawyer on 4 June 2019, alleging that the lawyer from the regional town and his partner had been harassed by certain officers from Strike Force Raptor in May that year.

On interviewing the constable who approached the lawyer at Beaurepaires, the LECC found that a group of Raptor officers arrived in the town the night prior to the court hearing, and his commander had instructed him and the senior constable to target the lawyer, “who was in with the bikies”.

The senior constable involved in the intimidation incident recalls their commander telling him and the constable to make sure the lawyer didn’t make it to court.

Both officers understood that their superior was not happy about having to come to town instead of having used court audio-visual links.

Purpose achieved

Following the adjournment, the lawyer went to exit the courthouse, only to see between five to ten Raptor officers gather out the front of the building. He felt so intimidated that he went back in and asked the magistrate if he could leave via her exit, which she permitted.

The lawyer then told his client, the motorcycle club member, that he could no longer represent him. The bikie understood and sought another legal representative.

The lawyer in question further understands that this client had been searched by the police out the front of the courthouse on the day of the intimidation.

On the following day, the lawyer decided to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work. A few hours later he noticed the two officers from the day prior standing next to it. On confronting them, he noticed that they’d attached a noise control notice to the bike.

Dismissal not recommended

LECC integrity commissioner Lea Drake found that the two officers involved in the intimidation and harassment of the lawyer had engaged in serious misconduct. And the instruction to carry out the intimidation by their commander also constituted serious misconduct.

The commissioner found that under the circumstances, there was no reason to pull the lawyer up on having not indicated out of his driveway, and the roadworthiness “inspection was an invention to intimidate, target and inconvenience”.

“The commission is concerned about the sense of entitlement that can develop in an elite strike force and was demonstrated by this conduct,” Commissioner Drake set out in her report. “Such limited strategies can become unrestrained and unlawful.”

“[T]his disgraceful conduct towards… [the lawyer was] deliberate, deceitful and malicious”, the Commissioner states.

“They harassed and intimidated [the lawyer] to such an extent that he could not represent [his client] to best of his abilities”, she continues.

The Commissioner further outlines that the actions of the pair, as well as their commanding officer, had been carried out either on the false belief that the lawyer had been associated with motorcycle clubs, or because he’d suggested the officers involved should appear before the court in person.

Commissioner Drake sets out that she had initially considered recommending removal from the force for the three officers, however, due to prior poor management in the strike force, she instead recommended that commissioner Fuller instead discipline them internally.

The commissioner further recommended that the relevant commander should contact the lawyer to apologise.

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