An Aboriginal man charged with assaulting and resisting police after he was tasered in a remote police station has had his convictions overturned on appeal.
The ruling follows a lengthy court battle during which 24-year-old Johannes Mangurra’s lawyers labelled his treatment in police custody “outrageous” and argued the force used by NT police officers was unnecessary.
The now-dismissed charges related to Mr Mangurra’s arrest inside the Numbulwar Police station in August 2019.
During the arrest, he was pepper-sprayed, tasered, and then bit police officers during an on-the-ground scuffle.
In a judgment handed down on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Judith Kelly said the actions of the police officers and of one of them in particular had “escalated rather than de-escalated the situation”.
“There is a reasonable possibility that acceding to his [Mr Mangurra’s] request to speak to a lawyer before he was handcuffed and taken to the cells would have de-escalated the situation and avoided the need for force,” Justice Kelly wrote in her decision.
“I have a reasonable doubt whether the police officers were acting in the execution of their duty,” she wrote.
‘Mr Mangurra was wrongly convicted’
Mr Mangurra had attended the police station voluntarily to inquire about fines but was placed in a locked room on arrival and told he was under arrest for an unrelated parole revocation order.
His parole had been revoked over a separate matter, however the judge said the Darwin Local Court had failed to keep him in custody as it was supposed to have done.
“Instead it ordered the appellant’s release, and he returned home to Numbulwar believing all outstanding matters had been finalised,” Justice Kelly said.
Police body-worn camera footage tendered in the case shows the interaction during the arrest in Numbulwar escalating.
Mr Mangurra, who does not speak English as a first language, made repeated requests to speak to a lawyer and failed to comply with police instructions to let them handcuff him, before he was pepper-sprayed and tasered by police.
In March, a Darwin Local Court Judge then found him guilty of assaulting and resisting police.
His defence lawyer, Gabriel Chipkin from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, welcomed Justice Kelly’s decision to reverse the convictions.
“As defence counsel, we always maintained on behalf of Mr Mangurra that he was outrageously treated by police whilst in custody,” he said.
Doubt police used force in a way that was justified: Lawyers
The main appeal argument which was successful was that the force used by police was not necessary or proportionate.
In her judgment, Justice Kelly said in order for charges of assaulting or resisting arrest to be proven, a police officer needed to be “acting in the execution” of their duty.
“If a police officer uses greater force than is justified, the officer cannot be said to be acting ‘in the execution of his duty’,” Justice Kelly wrote.
Justice Kelly noted because of the “unusual” circumstances of Mr Mangurra’s arrest, it would have been “perfectly reasonable” for police to prioritise contact with a lawyer, rather than handcuffing and placing him in the cells.
Justice Kelly described the appellant’s demeanour as “upset rather than aggressive” and agreed with defence lawyers who argued that options other than force were available: “Continuing to talk when the appellant made meaningful responses, negotiating to put the taser away and talk, giving the appellant the option of checking with his lawyer before handcuffing him and taking him to a cell.”
“It is at least reasonably possible that utilising those options would have avoided the need for the use of force,” she said.
One more charge related to the incident, for behaving in a disorderly manner in a police station, was not appealed by Mr Mangurra in the Supreme Court and still stands.
He had already been released after serving six months jail over the four charges related to the incident, including the three charges, which have now been overturned.
NT Police said they would not comment as the matter is a current complaint against police being investigated under the auspices of the Ombudsman Act 2009.