Scarcely a month passes when we don’t read of the Police or Customs or whatever, both in New Zealand and abroad, having nabbed a cache of illegal drugs with a street value of 50 zillion dollars and such-like. I’m not naturally a suspicious bugger but intuitively have always felt there was exaggeration in these amounts.
Well, a few years ago I asked an acquaintance, then Head of the local drug squad, how come your periodic drug arrests quote huge values yet the culprits are invariably living in state houses and driving old cars? He giggled a bit and confessed to hyperbole. He also admitted that few dealers make serious money but are simply dumb buggers of poor character incapable of doing anything else.
As is my wont I periodically pluck from my library, containing nigh on 200 columnists’ books, mainly from Britain, America and Australia, one to re-read. I did so the other night and pulled out one of the late Bernard Levin’s Times volumes, of which I have thirteen.
The reasons for that is the trick in column writing, despite the topic, is to be able to comment in such a manner and with wit, that it’s timeless. Bernard Levin was in my view the all-time greatest columnist because unlike say Menkhen, once hugely fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s, he will be forever readable despite the redundancy of the issue.
He was out here in the mid-nineties and popped in for morning tea when on his way north with the Press Club President Peter Isaacs. Bernard expressed envy at my library, he being forbidden to have one because he lived in a Regency era home which would collapse under the weight. Anyway, in the volume I pulled out the other night I read this from one of his Times columns.
The topic he was writing about was in his words, “the alleged barminess of Lord Langford,” an aristocratic social reforming, once Labour Minister with a reputation for spectacular incompetence.
In the course of it Bernard refers to a trial involving drug-smuggling (in which Langford spoke up for the defendant) with a “street value of £75 million” and writes in brackets, “All estimates of booty mentioned in courts trying cases of alleged drug-dealing, whatever the context, should be divided by five if any serious approximation is to be had. All sums expressed as ‘street value’ should be divided by nine.”
Plainly Levin was applying intuition when he wrote those words and in my experience intuition is more often right than wrong. I can’t claim the same on the occasion I challenged the local drug squad boss, instead I was prompted by the trial evidence of the accused’s addresses always reflecting poverty rather than wealth. Nevertheless suspicious bells ring every time I read the figures quoted in drug prosecutions.
If that in fact is the case then it is utterly corrupt. I have no sympathy with drug dealers but integrity in prosecutions is important as corruption is contagious leading to jaywalkers being charged with attempted murder, a corrupt play which stains the American judicial system.
We know this happens now with other prosecutions given the regularity of reading so many and sometimes all of the charges being withdraw on the opening day.
A few years ago I was chatting to a chap in Auckland and noticed LLB on his business card. I asked if he’d ever practised and was surprised when he told me he’d done a few years defending criminal cases in South Auckland. He seemed better than that so I asked why? “Because they offended my senses,” he said, “as so many were blatant frame-up jobs by the Police.” Then why did you stop?, I pressed to which he said that while they were frame-ups, invariably the accused was a crim and a rotter and unworthy of wasting his life on.
Anyone who’s done time will tell you prisons are full of inmates admitting they’re bad buggers but were set-up and innocent of the actual charges they were convicted for. That’s a world-wide phenomenon.
This can backfire on the Police. Remember Chief Inspector Bruce Hutton, booted out for planting the bullet in the Arthur Allan Thomas case after being wrongly nailed for this by the subsequent Royal Commission. When he died there was a huge public furore aimed at then Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Bush for delivering a eulogy saying, “Hutton’s integrity was beyond reproach.”
Well maybe. I know who planted the bullet as I’m damned sure does Mike Bush and it wasn’t Hutton. But the question is, did Hutton, in charge of the Thomas enquiry know? Logic tells me he must have which because of the actual culprit’s position, at the time, the Police can’t say but is why Hutton took the rap instead of protesting. Bush certainly wouldn’t have to think too hard to realise how I know. It doesn’t matter now as the actual planter like Hutton, is dead and nothing is to be gained from resurrecting it.
But it’s important that this practise be stopped although I unabashedly accept it’s only human when constantly dealing with villains. One way it could be tempered is to establish an office which demands an explanation every time the prosecution withdraws charges on the courtroom door, as so frequently occurs. Publicise the findings and with appropriate penalties when totally out of order, would surely see a diminishing of bogus prosecutions.