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The helmet saga that won’t go away

Monday August 21, 2017 Written by Published in Local

A series of adjournments has seen a large number of Rarotonga youngsters caught in the judicial process for the last four and a half months.

 

They are all facing charges of failing to wear a motorcycle safety helmet and failing to pay their fines, and so far the cases have been adjourned six times.

Introduction of a new motorcycle helmet law a year ago has seen numerous youngsters appear in court on charges involving unpaid fines and minor traffic offences.

The enforcement of the law, which requires those aged between 16-25 and tourists to wear helmets, has sparked issues over young people being hit with their first conviction at the age of 16.

There is also concern that if the problem continues, the justice system will be jammed with dozens of cases involving unpaid traffic fines.

CINews’ attention was drawn to the issue when some of the young people faced with 42 charges of failing to pay fines appeared in the Avarua High Court before Justice of the Peace John Whitta on April 6.

Some of the defendants appeared in court, and Whitta gave them all a second chance.

“I will say it is your lucky day, because what we are going to do for all matters today – for minor traffic offences, is adjourn them for three weeks till April 27, he said.

“All of your fines were supposed to have been paid within seven days of you being supposedly caught for offences. You now have another 14 days.”

The cases were adjourned till April 27, with police prosecution, defence council and Whitta agreeing leniency was necessary to avoid a large number of young people getting convictions.

The move was supported by lawyer Mark Short, who had previously expressed concerns about the situation.

“The last thing we need is to have 16-year-olds with convictions,” he said.

“They (parents) don’t want them (youth) getting convictions for failing to pay a fine, for a traffic offence, as this stays with them for the rest of their lives.”

As April 27 approached, it appeared the youngsters had learned their lesson and fewer were appearing in court on minor traffic charges.

At their first court appearance, after the three-week leniency period ended, the defendants were informed that if they paid their fines, they would not have to appear in court on April 27.

When deadline day arrived, an empty courtroom suggested the youngsters had strapped on their helmets and paid their fines.

Whitta jokingly addressed the bare room.

“I will assume that as the court room is empty, everyone has paid their fines,” he said. However, it turned out this wasn’t the case.

Police Prosecutor Sergeant Fairoa Tararo told the court that of the 42 people charged, 14 had paid their fines in the three weeks allocated, 10 no longer lived on Rarotonga and their cases had been withdrawn, and a further six had appeared in court on April 6, were aware of the consequences, and had still failed to pay their fines.

Tararo said four of the 42 people had been summonsed on both occasions and had failed to appear and pay their fines and a further eight were yet to be summonsed to court.

All those who had not paid their fines, including those who had been summonsed and had appeared, and those who have yet to be summonsed, would appear on a fresh charge of failing to pay their fine - a charge that came with a criminal conviction, he said.

Despite the fact that failing to wear a helmet can involve a maximum $500 fine plus cost, the matters have resurfaced in court four more times and have been adjourned each time.

The lengthy saga has seen three different JPs preside over a total of six hearings, with John Whitta, Georgina Williams, and most recently, Bernice Manarangi, faced with dealing with the issue.

August 18 saw the matter before the court for the sixth time, and again no defendants turned up to face the charges and pay their fines.

Police Prosecutor Tararo requested one final adjournment, which he said would give police sufficient time to talk to each defendant.

“We seek one last adjournment for all the minor offence cases,” he said.

“We need to approach each defendant individually and in person and tell them that they are to appear in court.

“There are some that have appeared in court but have failed to appear again. However, we can’t ask for a bench warrant to be ordered because there is no custodial sentence for this type of offence.

“There are a few that have already been summoned but have still failed to appear, so we need to approach them, tell them to come to court.”

He said if defendants were unable to appear, they could write a letter to the court pleading guilty. The offences could then be dealt with, without the presence of the defendant.

Fifteen of the 42 are yet to pay their fines, and will be contacted in weeks to come.

The long-running matter was adjourned “for the last time” till September 28, when a final decision will apparently be made on the outcome of each case.

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