Denial of discharge lauded

A senior policeman has lauded a Dunedin judge for refusing to allow a student to escape conviction for couch burning.

''One minute they are all boozed up and want to take the world on, the next minute they walk into the court with their ties on and butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. It's quite frankly sickening,'' the senior Southern district police officer, who spoke to the Otago Daily Times on the condition of anonymity, said.

''I have got no problem with having fun but when it becomes criminal and puts people's lives or property in danger and brings discredit to the university, that's not on.''

Otago's most senior firefighter and the University of Otago have also praised Judge Kevin Phillips' actions in the Dunedin District Court on Wednesday.

Judge Phillips convicted Adam James Landers (21) on Wednesday for recklessly damaging a couch by fire on March 17.

Landers had sought a discharge without conviction but that was refused by the judge, who also ordered him to pay $750 reparations.

The police officer said he had watched in frustration as students charged with lighting nuisance fires acted with impunity.

''They have got away with it for too long,'' he said.

Judge Phillips' ''hard line'' was needed to tackle the behaviour.

''This is criminal behaviour which would see the normal Joe Blow fire lighter have the full weight of the law exercised against them,'' he said.

''Convicting these drunken smart alecs might just be the deterrent needed.''

He believed the judiciary had the ability to make the greatest impact, the police, Fire Service and University of Otago having already worked together to deter couch burning.

''The university has been very good,'' he said.

''They have got a code of conduct and the proctor can fine people up to $500, but I don't think it's enough and the court can play the strongest hand here.''

He hoped other judges followed suit.

Fire Service East Otago area commander Laurence Voight said he was pleased with Judge Phillips' stance.

''This is in line with what we have been pushing for the last couple of years,'' he said.

''Just because they are students doesn't absolve them from being accountable for their actions.''

Mr Voight went a step further than the senior police officer, saying Judge Phillips' actions had ''set a precedent''.

''I hope we can see this consistently as a benchmark,'' he said.

''This to me looks like a realistic penalty.''

Between February and July this year, the Fire Service attended 62 nuisance fires in the student quarter, down from 88 during the same period last year.

Mr Voight hoped it showed students and other young people were getting the message.

''This is just a nuisance, this stuff. There's no need for people to burn couches,'' he said.

''It isn't going to happen overnight ... It's going to take time for this culture to change.

''I just wouldn't like to think that anyone would wake up in the morning and find the action they have taken has caused serious harm or worse.''

University of Otago proctor Simon Thompson also supported the court's stance.

''We fully support Campus Watch, Dunedin's emergency services and the judicial system in their work to stop this dangerous and unacceptable behaviour,'' he said.

''One positive trend that we have noticed is an increasing intolerance from students of fire lighting in North Dunedin. In fact, it is often students who report fires to Campus Watch. It is also encouraging to see that ... there is a downward trend in fire lighting in North Dunedin this year.''

A police spokesman said police would continue to maintain a ''zero tolerance'' approach towards those who set fire to property in North Dunedin.

''Police continue to take a zero-tolerance approach for all situations involving fire in the university area,'' the spokesman said.

''The lighting of any piece of furniture or other household item places other people and property at serious risk. A situation like this also creates unnecessary work for emergency service personnel and draws them away from other serious and potentially life-threatening incidents.''

timothy.brown@odt.co.nz

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