NT arrest laws should be scrapped: coroner

More Aboriginal people will die in custody unless controversial paperless arrest laws are scrapped, the Northern Territory coroner says.


Greg Cavanagh handed down his findings on Friday into the death of 59-year-old Kumanjayi Langdon, who died of heart failure in a Darwin police cell three hours after he was arrested for drinking in public.

“He died in his sleep with strangers in this cold and concrete cell,” the coroner said.

“He died of natural causes and was always likely to die suddenly due to chronic and serious heart disease, but he was entitled to die in peace, in the comfort of family and friends… he was entitled to die as a free man.”

NT Police are allowed to arrest anyone who they believe has committed or is about to commit a minor offence, and to detain them for four hours, or longer if they’re intoxicated.

But Mr Cavanagh said even serious criminals who were arrested were entitled to a lawyer, a bail application and court appearance within a confined period of time

About 95 per cent of people being held in NT cells for liquor offences are Aboriginal, and so there is an increased chance of their dying in police custody, the inquest heard.

“Unless the paperless arrest laws are struck from the statute books, more and more disadvantaged Aboriginal people are at risk of dying in custody,” he said.

Mr Cavanagh said there had been significant improvements in how police deal with Aboriginal detainees, and the care Mr Langdon received while detained was adequate.

But he said the new arrest scheme “imposes a burden that has caused the system to groan under the weight of new arrests” and police are unable to complete necessary risk assessments as a result.

The penalty for drinking in public is only a $74 fine, and Mr Langdon was arrested while a police operation to target anti-social behaviour and liquor offences was underway.

He found the arrest was lawful but questioned whether it was disproportionate and unreasonable.

The implicit message from the government and senior police “was that Aboriginal people drinking in designated public places could and should be taken off the streets”.

“Kumanjayi Langdon, a sick middle-aged Aboriginal man, was treated like a criminal and incarcerated like a criminal; he died in a police well which was built to house criminals,” Mr Cavanagh said.