The heir to New Zealand’s Maori throne has been cleared of theft and drunk driving charges on the basis it could jeopardise his chances of inheriting the title of king.
Korotangi Paki, 19, pleaded guilty to the charges but a judge discharged him without conviction on Thursday, saying he needed an “unblemished” record if he was to succeed his father, King Tuheitia.
Defence lawyers had argued the consequences of a conviction would outweigh the seriousness of the crime, because it would render the teenager ineligible for the role of king.
Paki had been on bail for drunk driving when he carried out the burglary and theft of surfboards and clothing from a holiday park in March.
Three co-defendants were also cleared.
Backlash at decision
Critics said the decision amounted to special treatment for the young royal and that other indigenous New Zealanders were not treated so leniently by the court system.
“It’s time, perhaps, that judges come back to this planet and recognise that their job is to apply justice equally to everybody,” former Maori affairs minister Dover Samuels, who has an indigenous background, told a commercial radio.
Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge said the courts should not be making decisions based on how they could impact on succession planning.
“That is up to the Maori authorities in question, not a matter of New Zealand law and to that extent is one law for common people and another law for royalty,” Hodge told Fairfax Media.
“That is not equal opportunity and it is not democratic.” Hodge said.
Tuku Morgan, a spokesman for the Maori king, welcomed the decision and said the young royal’s high profile because of his family meant he would have to bear the shame of his actions for the rest of his life.
“People get sent to jail and can then forget about it, shame in the Maori world is an onerous and serious consequence that one has to carry, that’s inescapable,” he told Radio New Zealand.
Maori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population but are over-represented in the justice system, comprising more than 50 percent of the prison population.
King Tuheitia, who worked as a truck driver before his coronation in 2006, is descended from the first Maori King Potatau Te herowhero.
The role was created in 1858 by various North Island tribes which wanted a single figure to represent them in the way that Britain’s Queen Victoria was a rallying figurehead for New Zealand’s white settlers.
The position does not have any constitutional status or legal powers in New Zealand but carries huge symbolic importance for many Maori.