PHOTO: Above – Police searching crime scene of fatal hit and run near Tennant Creek. (Pic courtesy NT Police.) Below – The writer a short time after becoming a hit and run victim in November 2013; in the RAH, and on top of Mt Gillen in June 2014, after the Alice Springs ambulance staff and emergency department had saved his life, and surgeon Lucien Solomon had worked his magic.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Sloppy procedures in transferring ownership of motor cars are a major obstacle to police investigations of serious crimes, including hit and run which is endemic in the NT and carries a penalty of up to 10 years in jail.
Especially out bush cars are transferred, often several times, with regulations being neither followed nor enforced, making investigations difficult and often fruitless.
A disproportionate number of these crimes have occurred in The Centre in recent times, including two resulting in fatalities late in 2014.
I have first-hand knowledge of one such event, as the victim of a hit and run on November 19, 2013.
A still unknown driver left me to die after hitting me, riding my scooter, on the intersection of the South Stuart Highway (on which I had the right of way) and Ross Highway. I suffered a compound fracture of my left femur, a broken pelvis and lost half my blood.
A local ambulance crew and staff at the Alice Springs Hospital emergency department saved my life, and surgeon Lucian Solomon, at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, put Humpty together again. These people will be my heroes for as long as I live.
The initial police investigation was thorough and revealing: a witness described the car and recalled part of the number plate.
Forensic experts then examined what was found at the site of the crash, including shards of glass from the vehicle’s right-hand headlight and other debris.
This allowed the conclusion – initially – that the vehicle was one of 10 registered in the NT. That number was later revised to nine.
Senior Constable First Class Neville Muller was put in charge of the investigation. He is s member of the traffic police, not the criminal investigation branch.
Despite these precise leads, well over a year after the crime was committed it remains unsolved.
Police, predictably, started with the last known registered owners of the suspect cars.
That proved to be of little help as it appears that in the NT, there are two types of people: those who follow regulations (mostly living in the urban areas); and those who don’t, and get away with it (mostly in the bush).
The regulations are inadequate and easy to flout.
This is what usually happens, explains Sen Const Muller: A Licensed Motor Vehicle Dealer (LMVD) sells a car and lodges a notice of disposal with the Motor Vehicle Registry (MVR).
The notice is presented on the back of the registration form, stating that date of the sale and the name of the buyer. That’s the end of the responsibility of the vendor.
The vendor is not required to obtain proof of ID from the buyer. In many cases the notice is inconclusive as people use more than one name or just a skin name.
The buyer is obliged to register the car in his own name within 14 days at the MVR where ID would be required.
Trouble is, many people don’t do this. This omission merely attracts a “small fine” – which is mostly not paid.
In the majority of those cases the car is not re-registered. For some weeks or months the new owner benefits from the existing registration and so the car is technically not unregistered. The NT Government misses out on stamp duty on the sale.
During that time, and frequently after, the car is traded, gifted or loaned from person to person. The MVR has no knowledge nor notification of any of this.
“I can’t remember who I gave it to” is an answer Sen Const Muller says he receives frequently in his still ongoing investigation of the hit and ruin that nearly killed me.
In our court system, the accused or defendant are not obliged to make admissions, whereas prosecutors must reveal to the defence all that is alleged and must prove their cases beyond reasonable doubt.
This is the state of his investigation at the moment, says Sen Const Mueller: “There were nine vehicles on the list.
“Of those vehicles two were in Darwin and eliminated.
“One was registered as belonging to someone in Lajamanu. That vehicle was later located at the dump at Yuendumu with no damage.
“One was located at Arlparra (nil damage), one at Haasts Bluff (nil damage), and I inspected another in town with nil damage.
“[Another] was located at Yuendumu with no damage.
“One vehicle has not been found and on the other vehicle the trail of who owned it and where it is now is still ongoing.
“The people involved keep coming and going and are hard to locate,” said Sen Const Muller when I spoke with him on August 7 last year.
“These vehicles are owned by people who do not keep any sort of documentation.
“They give the vehicles away, or they sell them to another party.
“Nothing is lodged with Motor Vehicle Registry. Some can be swapped two or three times. We get to the stage such as: ‘Yeah, I had that, I gave it to so and so,’ and that person says, ‘I swapped that with so and so.’
“‘I gave it to a relative’ – and when you press them for names they either don’t want to give us details or they genuinely do not know the person’s proper name,” says Sen Const Muller.
A second officer taking part in the interview, a Sergeant, says: “The keys are dead-handed around the place so the actual last user becomes far less likely to be identified.
“Also, if the vehicles [break down] they are just abandoned and often burned. The information will often not get back to the registered owner … because they don’t want to have a conflict with the registered owner who then cannot track the whereabouts of their car,” says the Sergeant.
“We have to meet the burden of proof, the standard of evidence [needs to be] beyond reasonable doubt.
“[Unlike on American TV] we have limitations about how we can influence people to give us that information.”
The sergeant says there is an obligation to assist with the investigation of a serious crime.
“We can say that to them, and put pressure on them in those lawful ways, but to take action against them we need to have evidence that they do have that knowledge.”
Says Sen Const Muller: “Threat of imprisonment is not a great stick. For people like you and I – yes.
“We deal with people for whom jail is of little or no consequence, of no deterrent value at all.”
During the first of two interviews, when the total number of possible cars was still 10, I pressed the officers about the degree of certainty of the investigation so far.
NEWS: Eight of the cars have been eliminated on the grounds that they had no damage to the front right, and no repairs had been done. Is that right?
MULLER: Pretty much.
NEWS: Pretty much – meaning yes or no?
SERGEANT: There could still be evidence that comes to light that would take us back to one of those cars. Repairs have been done, something like that. We don’t believe these eight were associated. It’s hard to ever say … conclusively [that the cars are eliminated].
NEWS: It would have to be a repair job, wouldn’t it?
SERGEANT: It would have to be something along these lines. Spare parts are accessible. [The eight] did not look practical or realistic [to have been involved]. There are still two vehicles we’re hunting down.
NEWS: Where were the two remaining vehicles registered?
SERGEANT: We are reluctant to hand out that information. We have all the registration details for them.
The sergeant says there are “no statute of limitation issues because of the seriousness of the offence”. That means there is no time limit for launching a prosecution.
“We have time to keep chipping away.”
NEWS: Is a result not less likely the more time passes?
SERGEANT: [That’s so], but a lot of the times, when we start going back to people, maybe they give us some more.
NEWS: Are the other passengers in the car also guilty of leaving the scene of an accident?
NEWS: Did the witnesses give information about the number of people?
SERGEANT: Yes, but a lot of that is speculation when you have a dark car at night time.
Says Sen Const Muller: “I’ve chased one car from Kintore to Papunya to town to Mutitjulu. The last paperwork is the woman who had it in Kintore. They just pass it on. They swap it with people.
“One person says, ‘I don’t know any more’. What can you do? It frustrates the hell out of us. There is no paper trail.
“A lot of the vehicles we deal with, the last paperwork is a notice of disposal lodged with Motor Vehicle Registry (MVR) from the car yard.
“They say on such and such a day we sold it to so and so, and that is pretty well where the paper trail ends.
“There is no paper work ever lodged and they drive the vehicle until it dies. In most cases it’s only a few months.”
Fixing some of the procedural issues seems a no brainer:-
• Make production by the buyer of current photo ID mandatory so the information passed on by the dealer to MVR is authentic and useful.
• Charge police – especially in the bush – with ensuring the transfer (and payment of the stamp duty) is lodged within the required two weeks, at pain of confiscation of the vehicle.
• Make it a serious offence for the registered owner not to know who is using his or her car at any time.
Information from the police on the number of hit and runs is clearly incorrect (see also Footnotes).
A spokeswoman told us on January 6, 2014: “Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2013, there have been three recorded offences against section 174FA of the Criminal Code (hit and run) in Southern Command. Two of these offences occurred in Alice Springs Division.”
The News replied that “from just my own experience or that of friends” in Alice Springs alone there was evidence of further hit and runs: My personal experience; a hit and run in about April 2013, resulting in serious injuries; one outside Woolworth in which a pedestrian received injuries; one corner Gregory Terrace and Todd Street where a motorcycle rider was hit and the car’s driver and another occupant left the scene. The rider and his pillion were injured.
Police replied on January 16, 2014: “While I have absolutely no doubt the other incidents you mentioned happened, however, in terms of pulling those stats, it is very difficult to quantify just one offence (in this case hit and run) as Police may have recorded a different offence in consideration of the circumstances of the incident.
“Including other offences in the data search may cover some of the incidents you have mentioned but it would include a much larger cohort of offences not necessarily a ‘hit and run’ and therefore if you intended to represent these all as hit and runs, the interpretation would be inaccurate.”
FOOTNOTES: Recent police media releases.
January 1, 2015
Police are calling for witnesses following an alleged hit and run of a 19 year-old man in the early hours of this morning on Tiger Brennan Drive (Darwin).
December 18, 2014
Major Crime Detectives continue to seek witnesses in relation to the fatal hit and run of a 38-year-old man, who was struck on the Stuart Highway around 15km north of Three Ways Roadhouse last month.
December 7, 2014
Police have charged a 45-year-old man in relation to a crash that occurred in Alice Springs yesterday. A 26-year-old man passed away later that day. The 45-year-old male has been charged with: Dangerous drive cause death, Hit and run, High range drink driving, Drive disqualified.
December 5, 2014
Police are calling for witnesses in relation to a crash which occurred on the Stuart Highway (Alice Springs) late last night. The driver of [a] Holden Commodore fled the scene on foot.
A 30-year-old Alice Springs woman has been arrested after allegedly hitting a cyclist just before 6am yesterday. The woman, who later blew .262, allegedly attempted a low-speed getaway out of town, along the Stuart Highway. Other cyclists caught up with the woman.