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Crime buster feels heat of the law

Published: 9:34PM Sunday August 07, 2005 Source: Sunday

Many would call Michael Vaimauga a hero but as Sunday discovered the police think he is a criminal.

Vaimauga was arrested and charged after he used excessive force on a young man he chased after witnessing him trying to break into a shop.

It all began in the early hours one February morning when some locals decided to hit the Guthrie Bowron store in Panmure. However, they were being watched by Vaimauga from his bedroom window across the street. "There's been a lot of crime in Panmure that I've seen. I just wanted to put an end to it and I thought I'd get involved and if no one else is gonna do it, I may as well start."

One of the men walked towards the shop window with a blunt object, took a swing and smashed a window. Vaimauga got a baseball bat for protection and decided to confront the trio.

Vaimauga's story highlights citizens' rights to arrest people who witness a crime being committed. The law states citizens can use as much force as is necessary to make an arrest, as long as you don't kill them or cause grievous bodily harm.

But there's a catch. While you can use as much force as necessary, you must use as little violence as possible. Vaimauga's version of events is that he stepped out into the street with his baseball bat to fight crime. "I got out here [outside the store] the window had been smashed and Carlos had a blunt object in his hand." 

The trio ran off and Vaimauga sprinted after 15-year-old Carlos Brown.

After giving chase, Vaimauga stopped and saw a figure sticking up from a bush. He called out to Brown to give himself up. Instead, Vaimauga says, Brown found a child's scooter in the driveway of a house and attacked him with it - striking him twice.

Vaimauga realised he was bleeding but felt no pain. Vaimauga struck Brown in the leg with enough force to drop him. Vaimauga then dragged Brown to a petrol station where the police were called. Thinking they would arrest Brown, instead Vaimauga found himself in handcuffs.

He was arrested because he used excessive force on Brown.

Police later said in court that Brown received injuries to his right shin, left knee and bruising to his elbow. What is disputed is how he got those injuries.

Eastern Area Commander Chief Inspector John Palmer says police were told that Vaimauga beat Brown around the legs causing severe lacerations. "The young man picked up a scooter...and threw it at him. The young fella was in fear of his safety and then whilst the young man was cowering on the ground, he beat him again several times with the baseball bat.  

"Vaimauga chased after a young man of 15 years of age for a considerable distance and beat him severely - leaving that young man traumatised and so badly beaten he had to be taken to hospital. That is unacceptable and people who use force like that will have to be held to account," Palmer says.

Vaimauga says he acted in self-defence and hit Brown in the shin once, and not the head, because he didn't want to cause an injury that may have lead to death.

"Quite clearly the extent of the injuries indicate that this young fellow's account was correct. He was hit more than once and he says several times. He was injured in several parts of the body so Vaimauga's account is not true," Palmer says.

However, Sunday has learnt Brown was out playing football with his mates later the same day.

Vaimauga spent the night locked up in Auckland Central police station charged with assault with a weapon. Brown was sent to hospital. 

Over the next five months Vaimauga went to court seven times to defend himself on a charge of assault with a weapon. He was eventually discharged without conviction but ordered to pay $150 to the Salvation Army.

The manager of the Guthrie Bowron shop was so grateful for Vaimauga's efforts, he paid the fine.

And against his lawyer's advice, Vaimauga did not seek name suppression. He says the court didn't hear about his full record in fighting crime. "In the last six months I have apprehended three guys trying to break into a car. The previous night I had apprehended two other teenagers breaking into the pawnbrokers." 

Then last month, just a few days before his final court appearance, Vaimauga caught yet another teenager breaking into Guthrie Bowrons. The shop has been broken into three times in six months - Vaimauga has caught two of them.

When Sunday spoke to Vaimauga he didn't know how badly Brown has been injured. He didn't know why Brown and his mates hadn't been charged.

However, Vaimauga does have a supporter - Brown's father, Kawa.

Kawa said he is sad his son is now caught up in a wave of petty crime. "I'm just annoyed they didn't arrest the boys...the boys did the crime but they got away with it."  

Meanwhile, it's taken five months for the police to do anything about the allegation that Brown tried to break into Guthrie Bowrons store that night in February. Police say any suggestion that these young people are getting off lightly is far from the truth. Palmer says Brown and his friends may end up in a family group conference.

Kawa says he feels sorry for Vaimauga because he was doing something right but he was being punished for it, and not his son.