A self-represented Lotus Glen prisoner has won a ten year battle against the state, with compensation for assault for overly aggressive conduct by corrective service officers in forcing hair extraction, as part of a legislated program that mandates inmates on indictable offences be sampled for a police DNA database.
John Coffey deflected the police sergeant’s direction for a consensual sample by mouth, with protocol demands and refused to provide it. Four days later on 5 March 2001, Coffey was motioned into an office and asked whether he would give the sample as previously demanded. He was jostled and cuffed with his hands behind his back.
He was then taken into another room so the Prison Sampling Team sergeant could retrieve an involuntary sample by the use of “reasonable force” as allowed under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act. Still handcuffed, grainy vision from the prison surveillance system showed him stumbling forward trying to stay upright as he was thrown to the ground “driving his unprotected head face-first into the hard floor” as the words: “Lay on the ground thanks Mr Coffey” was coming out of the sergeant’s mouth.
The face-first impact caused a gash above his left eye and rendered him unconscious. His honour ruled it had been entirely unnecessary to take the subdued Coffey “to the ground” and he could just as conveniently have been asked to sit in a chair.
Certainly “the force used was not authorised by law” and the state must be held vicariously liable for the mis-conduct of the two corrective services officers.
Coffey also claimed damages for the “removal of an excessive number of hairs from his head”, alleging it constituted an assault. The video showed several clumps of brittle hair being pulled by the roots from his head – in all 239 strands – such that it was “obvious that the number of hairs taken must have far exceeded what was necessary for taking a DNA sample”.
Compensatory damages were assessed at $7,500 for the floor impact and $500 for the taking of the superfluous hair samples. Plus an extra $12,000 for exemplary damages and another $8,000 for aggravated damages.
In a mostly successful appeal, Coffey’s damages were increased to $43,628.80 in a ruling delivered in December 2012.