Thursday, July 21, 2005

Fun with Suppression Orders

An Auckland drugs-ring has been busted, including two "sporting celebrities". The names of everybody involved has been interimly suppressed while the celebrities have yet to be arrested because they are still overseas. While there's reasonable grounds for the suppression order, it's been repeatedly violated on the local net over the last forty-eight hours to such an extent that if it still has any force left, it is only as a sick joke.

It's far from the first time that this has happened.

The best-knownt case was that of Peter G. Lewis, an American Billionaire who used marijuana for medicinal purposes. When he sailed down here to watch the America's cup, he was busted by customs for possession. Because of his wealth, he hired Marie Dyhrberg who managed to get him a discharge without conviction so long as he made a large charitable donation. The donation was made and a discharge given. All very well and good except that either Peter or Marie decided to go for a permanent name suppression. Although this was granted, this caused a stink. The NZ Herald got wind of the case from somebody at court and promptly leaked Peter's name to newspapers in Lewis's home state. Since they were online, anybody with a browswer could find out the name. Eventually the matter was appealed and the name suppression lifted.

It's easy to portray this as being a bad decision by a Judge who didn't know the power of the internet but that's not true. The District Court Judge, Justice David Harvey, was actually well-acquainted with the Internet to the extent of posting at nz.general at the time. Nz.general also happened to be the newsgroup where people disgusted at the decision posted the name - the culprits were generally too thick to realize that the Judge was a known participant. It can't have been a very pleasant experience downloading nz.general and finding out that your suppression order being repeatedly violated. I sailed pretty close to the wind at the time by going into a nz chatroom on IRC using Peter G. Lewis's name as my nick.

Thinking further about these cases, there seems to me to be a difference in interest depending on what the person does. When Graeme Capill was punched while his name was temporarily suppressed, the suppression order actually stood up quite well online (ie. nobody breached it as far as I was aware and only one or two hints were posted) even though his identity was a matter of great public interest. Compare this to the case earlier this year when an All-Black obtained final name suppression after admitting to assaulting his wife. Despite the player not being very noteworthy, the on-line activity was greater with Australian papers reporting the name.

Does this mean that suppression orders are now useless? My theory is that for most cases, the suppression order will be honoured on-line. For this to happen, the subject of the order have to be unimportant in the eyes of the New Zealand public, the subject's crime must not be significant and finally there must be no hint of impropriety by the courts. If the subject's circumstances breach at least one of these criteria, the subject should be resigned to the order being breached.

And now for something completely different: TVNZ's shows for the next season include a Game with One Half and Convict Island.