Analysis of a botched drugs case


When a Queenstown constable took the court stand in a drugs trial last month, it took only minutes for serious cracks to appear in the case – with implications for other previous cases. Scene editor David Williams reports.

It was not the rubber-stamping result police, or even perhaps the public, might have expected. A dozen people living in Queenstown, including several Britons, had already been convicted on various drugs charges when the case against James Neill and Christian Pearce went to a pre-trial hearing this month.

They were the last two before the courts – a year after their arrests police would finally reveal how a months-long drug operation started, how they trawled cellphone text records to shake up the Queenstown cannabis supply.

Judged by its convictions, the operation looked like an incredible success.

Instead, the case, heard in the Queenstown District Court, fell apart – to the extent that lawyers say it casts doubt on the convictions already achieved.

The more time officer in charge Constable Jason Reid spent in the witness box, the more the case was exposed as a disaster.

Judge Bernadette Farnan had only been sworn in this April. Before that she had extensive experience in the criminal court as a defence lawyer. The scale of mistakes and missteps turned from a trickle into a torrent that she simply could not ignore.

In her judgment, Farnan accuses Reid of being “reckless” and her exchanges with him during the hearing are telling. At one point she says of Reid’s language in a search warrant “it’s either laziness, sloppiness or dishonesty”.

To his credit, Reid agrees.

The defence accuses Reid of deliberate deception and lies – allegations he consistently denies.

Reid took the stand on the afternoon of August 10. Within minutes of him being sworn in the case was in trouble.

Reid – called to SIT’s campus for an eviction with constable Zoe Albon on July 3 last year – admits pulling a bag of cannabis from the pocket of a man, referred to as Subject A. Const Reid removed the bag before invoking search powers – that is illegal.

He later admits sharing this information with a senior officer, detective sergeant Brian Cameron. Cameron checked over an unsigned memorandum – which neglects to mention the illegal search – provided by Reid to the defence.

Cameron’s advice to Reid: “It reads well to me, just send it as it is.”

The catalogue of police errors and omissions keep coming – but not for any particular reason, Reid says.

The constable’s notebook fails to disclose the illegal search.

In a July 23, 2014 “production order” application (basically a search warrant for mobile phone data) Reid swears on oath that a plastic bag was “observed” in Subject A’s trousers, search powers were invoked, and three grams of cannabis plant were found in the bag.

That is not what Reid told the court.

“How could you be anything other than a liar?” defence lawyer Hugo Young asks.”

Reid replies: “Human error.”

Later he adds he is “not a perfect police officer”.

Photos were not taken at the scene. Exhibit records were not immediately provided to the defence team, despite repeated requests for all documents since December 1 last year.

Further police evidence – notebook entries, record documents and hundreds of pages of text message data – is disclosed during the two-day hearing.

Reid admits he wrote key information – including details of a text message apparently containing evidence of a drug sale – on a separate piece of paper, which he later destroyed.

Property records do not gel with what was found at the scene. The drugs were destroyed a week after they were found – despite the investigation continuing.

All this in the face of clear legislation and police guidelines.

The Public Records Act 2005 requires the police to create and maintain full, accurate records.

The defence questions Reid on several key points. When did he see a text message sent by Subject A offering drugs for sale? A search warrant application, signed by Reid to access private phone records, says he saw the message while in the SIT apartment’s bathroom – before the pre-charge warning was issued.

Initially, Reid says he cannot recall if he saw the message while in the bathroom. Later, he says the affidavit is wrong – which means he has misled an officer of the court in a signed document.

Reid maintains it was only in an interview at the police station after the pre-charge warning was given that he fully understood what the text message said.

It was evidence Subject A was a dealer, but Reid did not think to charge him.

Subject A’s pre-charge warning was for “possessing” cannabis. But Reid and Albon already had evidence of drug utensil use. That is another key plank of the defence case.

Found at the SIT apartment were three cannabis pipes, two cannabis bongs, 18 Snap Lock bags and two bags of cannabis leaf – 3g from Subject A’s pocket and 2g in the bathroom. Tracy Haggart, the sergeant who signed the pre-charge warning, was not told about the utensils.

If she had, the drug operation may never have started.

That is because the penalty for having utensils – up to 12 months in prison – is greater than the threshold for warnings, which are for offences with a penalty of up to six months.

Reid is no rookie cop. He is a constable with 11 years’ experience. He has done his detective papers. For a while, he was a uniform attachment temporarily to Queenstown’s criminal investigation unit.

Defence lawyer Young accuses Reid of crossing the line, conducting an illegal search and overlooking evidence of drug dealing. He has done a deal, Young suggests, to get information from the suspects.

Reid says no. He has made mistakes but they are not deliberate.

He is adamant Subject A and another man suspected of dealing drugs were not offered any deal of a pre-charge warning for information.

But surely outsiders could see his conduct as misleading?

Reid: “Yeah, an outsider could possibly come to that conclusion.”

An outsider would also note the league of senior officers assisting Reid on the case.

The station’s former top cop, senior sergeant John Fookes, signed a production order. Several sergeants and a detective sergeant have been involved to some degree.

An internal police inquiry is under way. It will no doubt focus on Reid’s actions. But it will be interesting to see if it attributes the failings to those of a single officer or to a wider systemic failure in the police.