Jade Christopher Harris, who evaded court appearances 27 times, has been found guilty by a judge, in his absence. Photo / Nelson Weekly
A man has been found guilty of a driving offence, despite not being involved in his own trial because he didn’t turn up to court.
In what was likely a rare move, but allowed by law in certain circumstances, Judge Tony Zohrab told the Nelson District Court he was left with little option but to go ahead without Jade Christopher Harris during a defended hearing on Wednesday.
Harris had already notched up 27 no-shows on charges of driving while disqualified for a third or subsequent time and failing to stop for police, after a late-night incident in December 2021. Eight warrants have been issued in that time, although Harris had turned up to court late on two of those occasions.
Harris, with whom police described as having a “working relationship” because of the frequency of contact, has now been found guilty and a warrant issued for his arrest for sentencing.
An Auckland University Associate Professor of Law, Scott Optican, told NZME he couldn’t say how often a trial was held without the defendant, but there was not a lot of case law on the subject, which suggested it was not common.
“I can’t say how rare it is – it should be, and it should be extraordinary,” Opticon said.
Harris’ life has been marked by drug and alcohol-fuelled offending since his mother, Tracey-Anne Harris, was murdered in 2016.
His failure to appear followed similar behaviour in 2016 when police put out a call to the then 20-year-old Harris who continued to evade police after removing his electronic bracelet following his appearance in the Masterton District Court on a breach of his home detention.
Harris later turned himself in, having been on the run for weeks.
Last year he entered not-guilty pleas to the Nelson charges and had planned to defend them on the grounds of disputed identification.
Judge Zohrab, frustrated by Harris’ absence once more, said he had shown “utter contempt” for the trial process over a matter that had been before the court since December 2021, and which had taken up a lot of police time.
Defence lawyer Rosa Brooke, who opposed proceeding due to the risk of an unfair or unjust outcome, confirmed her client’s whereabouts were unknown.
Judge Zohrab acknowledged her concerns but, at the end of the day, the impression was that Harris “doesn’t much care” about his case or advancing his argument.
“If he had, he would have turned up.”
He said despite Brooke’s helpful submissions, it wasn’t appropriate for her to act for him in his absence, and she was granted leave to withdraw as legal representative.
Judge Zohrab said the courts were always reluctant to proceed in the absence of a defendant but after setting out the relevant law that allowed it, it was his view that the matter needed to go ahead in the interests of justice.
The relevant law in this case included that the driving while disqualified charge, aggravated by it being a repeat offence, was a Category 1 offence.
Professor Optican said the default position would always be that a person had the right to present a defence, but that didn’t mean a trial couldn’t be held in their absence.
However, it was only likely when an offence was considered minor.
“It would become more rare as a case got more serious,” he said.
Judge Zohrab said the court had to consider if there was a reasonable excuse for Harris’ non-attendance but there was no information to support this.
“There’s concern about his rights to a fair trial but I’m concerned about the court process.
“There comes a point where the interests of justice include the integrity of the trial process,” Judge Zohrab said.
He said if the matter was adjourned again and Harris was picked up he would likely be placed in custody.
Harris, a disqualified driver, was seen by the police late on the night of December 1, 2021, with his brother, a forbidden driver, beside a black car near a petrol station in the Nelson suburb of Tahunanui.
A police witness at the hearing, Detective Constable Nathan Madden, said he was working the night shift with a colleague, when just before midnight he noticed two men standing near the back of a car, both of whom he recognised, one of whom he said was Jade Harris.
“I’ve dealt with him numerous times. He’s recognisable for the tattoos around his eyelids,” Madden said.
Judge Zohrab asked if there was any chance he could have got them mixed up, but Madden said the brothers were distinct from each other by their size, Jade being the thinner, smaller of the two.
The police waited, which was when they saw the two men in the vehicle, driving towards them, with Jade Harris behind the wheel, Madden said.
The vehicles passed each other, with Madden able to get a good look at the two in the vehicle who he described as “looking sheepish”.
The police did a U-turn and turned on their lights and siren, but the pair drove off.
A second police witness, Constable Chor-Loon Soong said it wasn’t possible they didn’t notice the patrol car.
“It’s quite obvious when it’s dark when a patrol car is behind you with the lights (red and blue) on.”
Judge Zohrab said, in finding the charges proven, that in such cases there was always the chance of mistaken identity, but what was clear was Madden’s close connection with Harris and his family, leading him to conclude he was unlikely to have been mistaken.
Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.