The incident happened over 12 months ago in February 2014. A call came into the Parks department saying a resident was removing Council owned trees. My colleagues at the time attended (as I was on leave) and confronted the house owner; they then called the local park police. The police attended and arrested the house owner. The duty Sergeant then unarrested them. It was only when we pushed the police that they the charged the house owner again.
A few weeks later, I was asked to have a look at the trees again with regard to their value, as some of the trees had been so badly hacked, I made the assumption that they had full canopies prior to the event. The trees have started to regenerate but obviously lost their central leader, so as stated in court, their value was reduced. I was very conservative when calculating their value, this proved to be a good thing in court, as they could see I had not over egged the cake so to speak.
The defence had an expert witness - who concentrated mainly on the condition of a large Ash tree which had been reduced back in 2009. They also brought into the mix poor planning that allowed the property to be built in 2011, far too close to this tree to which I agreed, but was not my issue. There was a Daldinia growing on an old stump on the lower stem but this was irrelevant to the case, as was the Council’s inspection records which were also questioned. It has really highlighted to me the importance of a good and well recorded management system which we now have in place. Prior to this on an open site, such as allotments, we had risk assessments only.
At the beginning of the trial the defence Expert and I got together to produce a joint statement which helped the process and stopped a lot unnecessary hassle during the trial. The Judge was quite good at steering the barristers in getting to the real issue of criminal damage, rather that swaying the jury with misleading information on inspection schedules etc.
The defence was focused on the structural condition of the Ash and that the householder was concerned about the safety of his family - he said there was a hanging branch which he cleared; something that I said would have been dealt with by our term contractor on an emergency basis. It was obvious that there was far more removed than just a hanging branch. It was also pointed out that the accused used unskilled staff with no safety equipment which put them, him and others at high risk of harm.
In the dock, I was asked about the type of debris and why I believed that more than two branches had been remove from the large Ash. There was also question why we thought all the trees had been damaged at a similar time, freshness of cuts, poor quality, all done in haste etc
In the end it was a unanimous decision by the Jury which was a surprise. The whole thing was quite stressful at times, but a good experience. The lessons I will take away from this are improvements in recorded inspections and more time and detail in producing reports, when investigating criminal damage.