Underage sex charge dropped

A charge against a young Dunedin man of having sex with an underage girl has been dropped after it was disclosed the girl had portrayed herself on Facebook as being over the age of 16.

Nicholas James Hirst (23) had denied having sexual connection with the girl between February 1 and April 1 last year when she was 15.

His trial, before Judge Michael Crosbie and a jury, was due to start in the Dunedin District Court yesterday.

Adverse weather conditions had delayed selection of the jury until about noon and the Crown was due to set out its case to the jury immediately after lunch.

But when the jurors returned to hear the case outline, they were advised by Judge Crosbie there had "been a development''.

Crown counsel Richard Smith told the jurors the defence had provided evidence relevant to the case. And, having reviewed that evidence and discussed it with the complainant and her family, the Crown had taken the view it could not prove its case against the defendant and was offering no evidence.

Defence counsel Anne Stevens then applied for Hirst to be discharged.

Judge Crosbie explained to the jurors the defendant had not been charged with rape or sexual violation, but with an age-related offence, namely having sexual connection with a person under the age of 16.

In such cases, a defence was available if a defendant could prove he had taken reasonable steps to find out if the other person was over 16 at the time of the act and he believed. on reasonable grounds, she was.

Had the case gone to trial it would have been about whether it could be proved the defendant knew the girl was under 16.

The evidence received by the Crown comprised Facebook entries which showed the girl had more than one facebook account, Judge Crosbie said. And it appeared she had portrayed herself on a Facebook account as being over the age of 16.

The judge said the Crown had taken what he said was "a responsible position'' by not offering any evidence because it could not rebut the defence of reasonable belief.