The family of Aunty Tanya Day have waited for the Victoria Police to return her belongings since her death in custody in December, 2017 seventeen days after being arrested for public drunkenness.
On Tuesday, a police officer carried them into a directions hearing in a brown paper bag and sat them on the ground at his feet in full view of Ms Day's family. Lawyers for the family requested he remove the bag from view of Ms Day's visibly distressed children.
As previously reported, Aunty Tanya Day had boarded a train from Echuca to Melbourne to visit her family, but never made it.
She had been drinking and had fallen asleep on the train to be awoken a short time later by a ticket inspector. When Aunty Tanya failed to produce a train ticket, the Castlemaine Police were called.
Despite being coherent at the time of their arrival, Aunty Tanya was arrested on a charge of public drunkenness. Sometime afterwards she allegedly hit her head in a police holding cell, and later died in hospital.
“One of our main concerns [today] is one of the cultural insensitive factors towards the family and the circumstances around mum’s death,” daughter Apryl Watson told NITV.
“Having to wait this time frame for mum’s things to be returned from evidence, to have them walked past us in a brown paper bag – that was the point that broke me.
“I think that could have been handled a lot better, and a lot more heartfelt than what it was. And to me, it was completely disrespectful, and I feel like it was calculated.
“You don’t just walk in late to a directions hearing with a bag full of evidence of the family’s mother’s belongings. To me that is just not okay, and I hope in some way that can be held accountable as well. “
During the hearing the court heard that Victoria Police’s CCTV footage from the cell had been reformatted from one type of file format to another, and as a consequence the time codes on the vision had been lost. It is unclear at this stage if the CCTV evidence will now be deemed inadmissible.
The family has accused Victoria Police of systemic racism as part of the reason for Aunty Tanya's death, and is currently having an expert report prepared. However Victoria Police representation argued that there was no basis for claims of systemic racism in the force.
Coroner Caitlin English ordered the report and submissions relating to the report be made before March 29. Any response or additional submissions in relation to the report are to be presented by April 16, ahead of the next and final directions hearing on April 30.
“I think what we’re hoping for by the next directions hearing is that the Coroner makes her decision on putting the systemic racism in the scope, which I think is a huge part of what happened to mum so I think that’s one of the important things that she needs to consider,” Ms Watson said.
“As well as there being some accountability to why there hasn’t been the footage retained so that was another question that they asked today in court – just is the question to the timestamps.”
At a previous hearing on 6 December last year, the coroner said she would be making a recommendation to abolish the offence of public drunkenness. A petition has also been circulating seeking the same repeal. It currently contains 6000 signatures.
"Our laws currently criminalise behaviour for some people that is completely overlooked for others," Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Ruth Barson said.
"If somebody is too drunk they need help to get home, they need help to get somewhere safe, or if there's concerns about their well being an ambulance needs to be called. They should not be behind bars."
She said to stop people dying in custody the law needs to be changed as soon as possible, and has urged Premier Daniel Andrews to take immediate action.