Mixing different paints with black and white can create an infinite number of colours. Crime exists in these infinite possibilities – it is never black or white. With the exception of some extreme criminal cases, it is difficult to know who around you has gone through the criminal justice system. As outsiders looking in we remain oblivious, yet those who have experienced the system – innocent or guilty – are stained by the system, left with a mark that will never disappear.
I Just Needed a FridgeThe first student I interviewed found himself in an awkward situation in the early hours of a weekday morning. Saul* was walking home from work and had been drinking. He described to me what followed: “You know how outside real estate offices they have those bins which have a stack of magazines in them? I decided I wanted one to use as a mini bar in my room, so I picked one up and began to carry it home. It was bloody heavy.
“As I was walking up the hill, a patrol car came down the road towards me, passed me, then did a U-turn and pulled up beside me. I stopped and desperately thought of what to say (l’esprit d’escalier … I just found it in the park … duh). One cop wound the window down and said, ‘you better have a real good explanation for this.’ I didn’t so I told them the truth.
“They helped me load the bulky, awkward magazine stand into the backseat and I then squeezed in next to it. We dropped it back in front of the real estate agent, rearranged the magazines inside it, then they took me to the station. I was photographed and fingerprinted. They were very courteous but I was exasperated a little by their insistence on thoroughness and detail when all I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.”
The Unrepentant Drug DealerThe next student I interviewed, Iggy*, answered my questions with a consistently unremorseful attitude. Iggy explained to me what he’d done. “Me and a few mates organised to buy a pound of weed because we were sick of buying tinnies for $25 from stingy dealers in Dunedin. I planned to sell enough weed to pay for what I kept for myself, which would have been pretty easy given the huge demand in Dunedin. The cops came two days later and searched the whole flat, eventually finding the weed (it wasn’t hidden very well). I was then arrested and taken to the station. I confessed to owning all the weed to save them hassling my flatmates. Then I told the detective in charge that I should probably talk to a lawyer before saying anything else.
“When I was taken to the station I had to wait in a cell for about an hour before they took my DNA and fingerprints, then I was free to leave. I was then put on bail and consequently was not allowed to drink. And I totally didn’t.”
Both Iggy and Saul had similar experiences at the station. Saul tells me he was treated fine but his “best bet was to be as cooperative as possible – I took the view that they were just doing their job but I was rather angry at myself and embarrassed.” Confident Iggy went as far as to having a “good yarn” with one of the cops.
I Was Just Washing My CarAlthough Blondie* had a mild incident, her punishment by the Proctor is something more students can relate to. “Last year I was with a group of friends and we were heading towards town. My friend had dared me to climb onto a car that was parked on the street. When I started to get up on the bonnet, a police officer happened to be walking past … oops. The police officer took my details, asked if I was a university student and told me that the Proctor won’t be very happy to hear about this.
“I got an email about two weeks later saying I was summoned to the Proctor’s office. However, it was the Deputy Proctor who dealt with me as the Proctor was away that day. He yelled at me and said my behaviour was absolutely disgusting – he thought I should have been arrested. He gave me about 30 hours community service, which had to be completed in a month. I was nearly in tears after the deputy had finished with me … I have never done anything like this before and it was really out of character for me.”
The Trial ProcessFor stealing the magazine bin, Saul’s appointed lawyer explained to him his options: “plead innocent and try the case or plead guilty and pay $400 to a charity and they would drop the charges on a diversion.” Saul went for the diversion.
Unfortunately for Iggy, his charge was more serious. “The trial process dragged its ugly arse on for a good three months with four trips to court and a few visits with community probation before I was finally sentenced. I got community detention for three months and community service. Out of the whole ordeal I’d have to say the trial was the worst part, it dragged out for ages and put a lot of stress on me and also my family.”
However, this unrepentant drug dealer never learned his lesson. “Life didn’t change much after the conviction apart from the community detention which required me to be wearing an ankle bracelet for three months. The bracelet led to me staying at home all day depressed and smoking and selling more pot than I would have, had I still had the pound. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson. After that was over, things returned to normal and I had the summer to sort myself out.”
AdviceIn retrospect Saul felt that the police were “a bit lame about trivial stuff, like, they could have just made me take the thing back and be done with it. Based on my entirely amateur analysis I think if it was just one of them he would have done so, but because there were two neither one was prepared to put himself out there for me.”
However, Saul warned me, “don’t fuck with the police – they’re just people doing their job, you know? I know what it’s like to have to be petty and lame and a stickler for the rules because it’s your job.”
Bonnet-sliding Blondie also gave me important advice. “If you give into stupid dares, at least make sure there isn’t a police officer walking down the street when you do it. No, in all honesty, I think it’s really important that if you are drinking always make sure you surround yourself with people you know and trust.”
Iggy on the other hand didn’t feel so reformed. “Apart from being a bit more careful and paranoid when it comes to buying drugs I can’t say I learned much,” he says. “I’ve always believed marijuana should be decriminalised and that hasn’t changed. However, I have much less respect for our justice system after seeing what a big fucking joke it is. As for advice for other students facing convictions: pay for a good lawyer, the ones they give you are shit.”
Getting DeepThroughout these interviews, I found that the system had stimulated intense feelings within each participator. When I asked Saul, for example, if he could identify problems with society or the University that had led him into committing his crime, his response was thought-provoking.
“I was in a bad place the year I attended uni,” Saul explained. “I went because I was led to believe that there were no other valid options – my parents would accept nothing else. But as soon as I got to uni, I realised it wasn’t the right choice for me. I worked part-time at Shooters and felt more stimulated and impassioned there compared to anything I experienced at uni.
On a similar note of contempt, Blondie’s run in with the Proctor left her with a strong dislike for the Student Code of Conduct. “My actions had nothing to do with the University and yet they still had the power to punish me. What I do in my spare time is none of the University’s business. That night would have had no impact on the University’s image because nothing was ever reported, not via the courts nor the media. I think there should be more investigation into why the University should have the right to exercise such power over its students. In the end I graduated with a first-class honours degree, which I’m sure they would be very happy about.”
Blondie went on to make a worrying comparison: “the person before me received significantly less community service, was not yelled at and was even allowed to have a conversation with the Deputy. The person was a male who had caused damage to a property, broke into someone’sback yard, relieved himself in their backyard and, from what I could gather, Campus Watch had to go and get him out. He had also been drinking but he received something between 15-20 hours.
“I have always wondered whether the Deputy viewed it as less acceptable for me to be misbehaving because I am female. In our society it seems that it is acceptable for ‘boys to be boys’ and go and be stupid by breaking other people’s property but it’s unacceptable for females to do so.”
On the other hand, the eternally impenitent weed dealer, Iggy, didn’t believe any social factors led him to his crime. “I like smoking weed and so I bought some in bulk just like you do with ciggs at duty free,” he says. “When it comes down to it, the government could have saved themselves, the police and me a shit load of money if they just let me grow it for free in the first place. It’s a plant for fuck’s sake.”
The Undercover AgentIn contrast to the other students I interviewed, this student hadn’t committed a crime – but he certainly was involved with criminals. I sat down with Freddy* to hear his criminal story.
“When I was in my second year I was living on Dundas Street in the Coronation Street block of buildings. I was living in the room right at the bottom and I would open the window and sit beside it and smoke. There were a couple of really scummy looking boys who lived a couple of houses down; I think they were students. They were walking past one day and asked me, ‘hey bro, can we borrow some smokes? We wanna smoke up but we’ve got nothing to mix it with.’ I gave them a smoke and it became a tradition. Then one day they knocked on my door and said, “oh bro, can we use your computer? Our internet’s out and we want to order our dinner.” I let them use my computer and I thought nothing of it.
“Two weeks later two police officers knocked on my door, asked me who I was, then asked me to come down to the station with them. I was thinking, ‘what the fuck is going on?!’ We did a round of the city, which took 30 minutes and I was shitting myself in the back seat. Then they took me to an interrogation room at the police station – it was a really square room with a table and two chairs, just like what you see in the movies. There was no reverse mirror but it was really utilitarian.
“I sat there for 40 minutes and nobody came in, nobody talked to me, nobody did anything. I was fucking shitting my pants. Finally this cop comes in and treats me like I’m scum. He asked me all these weird questions – I guess he was sizing me up. He treated me like a criminal – he put the fear of power in me and if I did something wrong they would’ve have known immediately. It was a really interesting process.
“In the middle of his pretty mundane questions he suddenly asked me, ‘did you and your mates order some pizza a couple of weeks ago for dinner on a Saturday night?’ I replied, ‘no – what are you talking about?!’ He finally let it slip that someone had ordered pizza from my computer with a stolen credit card. At that point I went into super detective mode. The cop was a good cop because he realised that I had no idea what he was talking about. I explained to him that these two scumbags had come and used my computer and at that point he was on my side because he knew I was telling the truth. The moment he realised I wasn’t guilty he was my best friend.
“The cop said, ‘right, do you know these boys’ names?’ and I said no. ‘But you know where they live?’ ‘Yip.’ ‘Well, tell me that … so you’re saying they’re pretty friendly with you? Here’s what I want you to do. They say that they want you to smoke up? Go and smoke up with them! Go and have a bong with them and be real casual about it.’ [laughs] This cop told me to go undercover, find out their names and cellphone numbers if possible. So on the police’s recommendation I went and had a bong [laughs] with these scumbags who lived two houses away from me! I found out their names, their numbers and their email addresses!”
When I asked Freddy how he go their emails he replied, “I don’t know. I’m an actor and I just laid it on the line!” When I asked Freddy what happened to these guys he eloquently replied, “they could have gone to court or something. I’m not sure but I fucking hope so because that was some skank-ass weed.”
As interesting as these interviews were, they were also at times concerning, and the interviewees observed problems with a range of legal procedures. Saul felt alienated, Iggy oppressed, Blondie discriminated against and Freddy … well, Freddy got a free session, so on balance he’s happy.