Supreme Court finds police officers guilty of assault that left prisoner with fractured jaw

The Supreme Court has found two policemen guilty of assaulting a prisoner and causing serious bodily harm.

The court was told that on or about June 26, 2021, at Neiafu, Penitiketo Latu and Taliai Tapueluelu repeatedly punched and kicked ‘Isileli Latu while he was in custody, fracturing his jaw. The prisoner was left unconscious.

The offending occurred inside the police station at Neiafu, Vava’u.

The court was told that the officer in charge that night was aware of previous allegations against the two officers of assaulting prisoners.

In his summary of the case, Acting Lord Chief Justice Tupou, KC, said the accused injured ‘Isileli Latu without legal justification and described their actions as “deliberate and intentional.”

Section 100 of the Tonga Police Act states that a police officer may use reasonable and proportionate force to exercise his or her powers. However, the force used should not be such as to be likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm unless it is necessary to prevent death or serious injury to the police officer or another person.

At the time of the incident, Latu was 19 years old and an officer in His Majesty’s Defence Forces. He had been drinking with colleagues at the Fangatongo base after work. After consuming six cans of beer and some mixed liquor he left to find food. It was starting to get dark. On his way he was engaged in a physical altercation with a man who ran from him and into the fire station, which was next door to the police station.

Latu followed him, wanting to fight. Firemen Hakalo and Officer Taifolau Vailea, who were on duty, chased him away.  Vailea said Latu was swearing and wanted to fight. They tried to take him into the police station, but he held on to the fire department fence.

The first accused, Penitiketo Latu was on the steps at the entrance to the police station and saw the commotion. He went down to take the soldier inside,  but he resisted arrest and the second accused, Taliai Tapueluleu came out to help.

When ‘Isi Latu  was taken inside the charge room, Taliai directed officer Latu to search ‘him and put him in the prison cell. Evidence was given that ‘Isi Latu was difficult to control and resisted being searched.

‘Isi Latu admitted that he threw the first punch at Latu. He said that during the fight with Latu he felt Taliai wind his arm around his neck and he blacked out. When he regained consciousness, he was inside the prison cell. He could not close his mouth or speak and his jaw was hanging down. There was blood where he lay.

Officer Kivalu  gave evidence that he saw the accused take ‘Isi Latu to the watchhouse. He said ‘Isi was unconscious and lying on his back. He saw both Latu and Taliai kick ‘Isi on the head area at least twice. The two men were in uniform and had their police boots on when the kicks were administered. When Latu and Taliai saw him watching, they shut the door.

Later, when ‘Isi Latu had been left alone, Kivalu entered the room and checked that he was still alive. He tilted Isi’s head to his right to prevent any possibility of suffocation from the blood. ‘Isi did not respond. When the two accused returned he asked them to take ‘Isi to the hospital in case he died. Taliai told him to take ‘Isi to the shower and wash the blood off him. Kivalu refused.

He saw officer Latu and Taliai grab ‘Isi’s arms and drag him to the shower to wash the blood off. He was then dragged  back to the cell and left  unconscious.

Inspector Taniela ‘Unga (“Taniela”) said he was Officer in Charge on the night in question. When he came into the station he noticed a smear of blood on the counter in the charge room.

He looked toward the cells and heard a murmuring sound. Then he saw a bloodied hand holding onto the door of cell No.4 . He heard a voice saying there was an injured person there. He did not check for himself, but called out to officers Latu and Taliai to take the prisoner to the hospital and to provide a full report at the end of their shift. He then went  to join a group of men drinking kava.

Under cross examination, Inspector ‘Unga said he was aware of previous complaints against Taliai and Latu for assaulting prisoners. He could not recall if any had involved medical reports. He could not confirm whether Latu and Taliai had previous criminal records.

In his summing up, Acting Lord Chief Justice Tupou  said he was satisfied that ‘Isi was drunk, unconscious and defenceless when Taliai and Latu kicked him.

“I am convinced that under those circumstances, there was nothing to cause them to honestly believe they needed to use the force they did to defend themselves from an imminent attack by ‘Isi,” the judge said.

“Therefore the said kicks were nothing less than deliberate and intentional.

“I am satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt that the prosecution has proved all of the elements of the indictment.   I therefore find Penitiketo Latu and Taliai Tapueluelu guilty of causing serious bodily harm .”

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