By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
The Western Australian government has been criticised for appealing a District Court decision to award $1.1 million in damages to a couple who were illegally Tasered, wrongfully arrested, unlawfully detained and maliciously prosecuted by police after they stopped to help a stranger.
Catherine Atoms and Dr Robert Cunningham were walking past the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle on a night in November 2008, when they stopped to help a man who was lying in bushes.
Police arrived shortly thereafter, manhandled the couple and then Tasered them for allegedly “causing a disturbance”. The pair were then handcuffed and charged with obstructing a public officer.
The charges were later dismissed and the couple then took civil action against the state government and three police officers.
District Court Judge Felicity Davis ruled in favour of the couple, finding they were subjected to battery, false imprisonment and misfeasance in public office.
Her Honour found that police grabbed Ms Atoms’ arm for “no lawful reason”. She noted that when Dr Cunningham attempted to intervene, he was handcuffed and the pair were then unjustifiably shot with Taser guns whilst in handcuffs.
Police lie on the witness stand
Her Honour slammed the evidence of officers Simon Traynor, Peter Clark and Glenn Caldwell, describing it as inconsistent, unreliable, inaccurate and implausible.
The judge viewed CCTV footage which clearly showed that Ms Atoms was not angry or aggressive towards police as alleged, but was “calm and composed” as she tried to help the man in the bushes.
“I find that Officer Traynor could not deal with the fact that Ms Atoms was questioning what he said and that he might have been wrong,” Her Honour remarked.
She further found that the force used to arrest Dr Cunningham’s arrest was “excessive and disproportionate”, and that the use of Tasers was “neither reasonable nor appropriate.”
Judge Davis proceeded to accuse Fremantle police of displaying “antipathy towards members of the public”.
Police policing themselves
An internal police investigation cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, finding that their actions was justified, proportionate and reasonable.
However, WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission found the conduct to be malicious and unlawful, recommending that police “reinvestigate” the matter.
“Without such action, there will be ongoing concerns about the integrity and capacity of the commission to oversight internal police investigations and conduct its own independent inquiries,” CCC oversight committee chairperson Margaret Quirk stated.
The couple were finally awarded compensation a decade after their experience.
However, attorney general John Quigley has appealed the $1.1 million damages award to the state’s Supreme Court – which means further delay and expense for both the couple and WA taxpayers.
Ms Quirk has urged the state to “cut its losses” by withdrawing the appeal.
In response, the attorney promised to “review the State’s position” after consulting the state solicitor.
After the appeal was filed, Dr Cunningham expressed disappointment that, “For over eight years the State of WA has adopted the position as I understand it that the police in question did nothing wrong.”
The case appears to be just another example of police policing themselves, the state government endorsing police misconduct and taxpayers ultimately having to foot the bill for police brutality.