The New Zealand KGB?

COLUMN

On March 16, 2018, 77-year-old Patsy McGrath went into Nelson to collect a cylinder of helium which had been illegally confiscated 524 days earlier. On October 7, 2016, she had been visited by two Nelson police officers armed with a search warrant to remove a cylinder of helium they said they had reason to believe she had in her possession.

When interviewed, Mrs McGrath said: “They came, showing me a search warrant, and they had to search the house because they had heard that I’d got a helium balloon kit, and was going to use it for voluntary euthanasia, and that they had a right to take it.”

Helium is used to blow up party balloons and can be bought legally from stores around New Zealand. But it can also be used to secure a painless death by people who are terminally-ill or terminally fed-up with increasing disability.

Mrs McGrath said that the police officers were apologetic and extremely embarrassed by what they had been ordered to do by their superiors in Wellington.

And so they should have been, for the police had no legal right to confiscate her helium since the judge or magistrate who issued it should have known that helium is legal.

The “justification” that she had bought it for the purpose of ending her life at some indeterminate time in the future was a concoction, because suicide is not against the law and it is it perfectly legal to own equipment that could be used for suicide.

In an attempt to justify such a raid, the senior police officer in Wellington, Inspector Chris Bensemann, said: “Police are responsible for enforcing New Zealand’s laws, and currently suicide or encouraging/helping someone to commit suicide is illegal in New Zealand.”

That would be fine, if only Bensemann knew the law he was sworn to enforce. The problem is that attempted suicide has not been illegal in New Zealand since 1961. The fact that his knowledge of the law was over half a century out of date should have been a matter of grave concern.

Of course, it is possible that his tongue had slipped and he really did know that attempted suicide was not illegal. In that case the police must have been acting on the supposition that Mrs McGrath’s helium was evidence of “aiding and abetting suicide”, which is illegal under the 1961 Crimes Act.

The trouble is, possession of helium that could be used for suicide is no more evidence of an intent to aid and abet its use by others than possession of a rope could be evidence that it would be used for hanging by another person.

Thus it is clear that the police were either manufacturing a reason for believing that Mrs McGrath was intending to break the law, or they were trying to enforce a law that did not exist.

Disgraceful though this police action was, it raises further questions about actions more characteristic of a police state than a democracy. How did the Wellington police know Mrs McGrath had a helium tank? She is a member of Exit, an organisation devoted to helping people to obtain the means to end their lives.

Following an Exit meeting in Lower Hutt on October 2 at which Mrs McGrath remembers saying that she had a helium tank, the police set up a fraudulent alcohol road stop at which the Exit attendees were made to give their names and addresses. It later emerged that the police had bugged the meeting.

Following the road stops, 15 elderly people were visited at their homes by police, who said that they were concerned for their well-being — an experience which, needless to say, some reported to be extremely stressful. One wonders how the police would have defended themselves in the event of a recipient of such a visit having a fatal (or even non-fatal) heart attack or stroke.

In the days and weeks following the road stops, the police said they were simply trying to “protect life”. Such an argument doesn’t even pass the sniff test; a report by the Independent Police Conduct Authority published on March 15 this year found it illegal.

When elderly people learn that the agents of the state are bugging their homes for no better reason than that they are discussing ways to end their lives peacefully, it is time to worry. If the Wellington police want to convince the public that they are not taking lessons from the KGB, they owe the public an official apology. Until they do, they stand accused of high-handed abuse of the law they are sworn to uphold.

This debacle might not have happened had the Wellington police top brass spent more time with ordinary New Zealand citizens like Patsy McGrath who, in the days following the raid on her property, became a local folk hero at the Nelson market.​

  • Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.
  • <

On March 16, 2018, 77-year-old Patsy McGrath went into Nelson to collect a cylinder of helium which had been illegally confiscated 524 days earlier. On October 7, 2016, she had been visited by two Nelson police officers armed with a search warrant to remove a cylinder of helium they said they had reason to believe she had in her possession.

When interviewed, Mrs McGrath said: “They came, showing me a search warrant, and they had to search the house because they had heard that I’d got a helium balloon kit, and was going to use it for voluntary euthanasia, and that they had a right to take it.”

Helium is used to blow up party balloons and can be bought legally from stores around New Zealand. But it can also be used to secure a painless death by people who are terminally-ill or terminally fed-up with increasing disability.

Mrs McGrath said that the police officers were apologetic and extremely embarrassed by what they had been ordered to do by their superiors in Wellington.

And so they should have been, for the police had no legal right to confiscate her helium since the judge or magistrate who issued it should have known that helium is legal.

The “justification” that she had bought it for the purpose of ending her life at some indeterminate time in the future was a concoction, because suicide is not against the law and it is it perfectly legal to own equipment that could be used for suicide.

In an attempt to justify such a raid, the senior police officer in Wellington, Inspector Chris Bensemann, said: “Police are responsible for enforcing New Zealand’s laws, and currently suicide or encouraging/helping someone to commit suicide is illegal in New Zealand.”

That would be fine, if only Bensemann knew the law he was sworn to enforce. The problem is that attempted suicide has not been illegal in New Zealand since 1961. The fact that his knowledge of the law was over half a century out of date should have been a matter of grave concern.

Of course, it is possible that his tongue had slipped and he really did know that attempted suicide was not illegal. In that case the police must have been acting on the supposition that Mrs McGrath’s helium was evidence of “aiding and abetting suicide”, which is illegal under the 1961 Crimes Act.

The trouble is, possession of helium that could be used for suicide is no more evidence of an intent to aid and abet its use by others than possession of a rope could be evidence that it would be used for hanging by another person.

Thus it is clear that the police were either manufacturing a reason for believing that Mrs McGrath was intending to break the law, or they were trying to enforce a law that did not exist.

Disgraceful though this police action was, it raises further questions about actions more characteristic of a police state than a democracy. How did the Wellington police know Mrs McGrath had a helium tank? She is a member of Exit, an organisation devoted to helping people to obtain the means to end their lives.

Following an Exit meeting in Lower Hutt on October 2 at which Mrs McGrath remembers saying that she had a helium tank, the police set up a fraudulent alcohol road stop at which the Exit attendees were made to give their names and addresses. It later emerged that the police had bugged the meeting.

Following the road stops, 15 elderly people were visited at their homes by police, who said that they were concerned for their well-being — an experience which, needless to say, some reported to be extremely stressful. One wonders how the police would have defended themselves in the event of a recipient of such a visit having a fatal (or even non-fatal) heart attack or stroke.

In the days and weeks following the road stops, the police said they were simply trying to “protect life”. Such an argument doesn’t even pass the sniff test; a report by the Independent Police Conduct Authority published on March 15 this year found it illegal.

When elderly people learn that the agents of the state are bugging their homes for no better reason than that they are discussing ways to end their lives peacefully, it is time to worry. If the Wellington police want to convince the public that they are not taking lessons from the KGB, they owe the public an official apology. Until they do, they stand accused of high-handed abuse of the law they are sworn to uphold.

This debacle might not have happened had the Wellington police top brass spent more time with ordinary New Zealand citizens like Patsy McGrath who, in the days following the raid on her property, became a local folk hero at the Nelson market.​

  • Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.
  • <
Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Ann David - 6 months ago
An apology should be the very least.

In Mrs McGrath's case, compensation for the illegal confiscation of her perfectly legal possession would be more appropriate.



Poll

  • Voting please wait...
    Your vote has been cast. Reloading page...
    Do you support the call for a feasibility study into developing an "inland port" and sending the district's export logs to Napier Port by rail, to get log trucks out of the city and to repurpose the port and harbour area?