An imprisoned Mongols gang associate who was caught in a car park of an upscale Auckland neighbourhood with a loaded AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle – capable of discharging 40 rounds “within a matter of seconds” – has had his sentence reduced on appeal.
But although Brandon Vincent Tangi’s new sentence is now less than two years – the point at which custodial terms are often substituted with home detention – the appeal judge made it clear an ankle monitor is not in the 22-year-old’s immediate future.
“A sentencing such as this must draw a line in the sand regarding the carriage of loaded semi-automatic weapons in public, in circumstances which suggest a willingness to use them,” Justice Andrew Becroft wrote in an 18-page decision released to the Herald today.
He set aside Tangi’s sentence of two years, two months and 14 days’ imprisonment and instead jailed him for one year and 10 months.
“However, that prison sentence must be served,” he stipulated. “Leave to apply for home detention is refused.”
Officers searched Tangi’s car last September after finding him just after 8am in a Remuera car park. He told police he often stayed in the area with people who “looked after” him. He later acknowledged being a driver for Mongols associates, a job he said he did for food and money.
Police found the assault rifle in the front passenger seat footwell, hidden by a blanket. It had two magazines that had been taped together for fast reloading. Tangi told authorities he had the gun for protection because there was a $10,000 price on his head, Auckland District Court Judge John Bergseng noted during his sentencing in May.
The unexpected firearms bust resulted in a police search of a swanky $5.9 million Remuera waterfront mansion on the same street where Tangi was arrested and where other members of the motorcycle gang were known to live. The arrests were part of Operation Cobalt, a nationwide police crackdown on gangs launched after a rise in firearms violence between gangs.
The Mongols are a relatively new gang in New Zealand, having established roots here after senior members were deported from Australia. The gang has been tied to numerous shootings in Auckland, with members being victims and alleged aggressors.
Tangi’s lawyer noted during his sentencing that he is a new father and he has indicated a desire to change his life. He also wanted to keep his job as a nightshift forklift operator, which he could do if given community detention.
But Judge Bergseng noted that Tangi’s arrest came amid “ongoing gang conflicts” in Auckland that had resulted in multiple shootings. Due to the need for deterrence in cases involving such firearms, prison would be “the only realistic outcome” even if he had reached an end sentence of less than two years, the judge said.
With a starting point of three years’ imprisonment, the district court judge had added two months to the sentence for his offending while on bail. He then reduced the sentence by 20 per cent for his guilty plea and a further 10 per cent for other factors including previous good character, youth and his prospect of rehabilitation.
During his appeal hearing last month in the High Court at Auckland, Tangi’s new lawyers argued that the district court judge should have given their client at least 20 per cent credit for youth, his previous good character and rehabilitative prospects. In his decision, Justice Becroft granted an overall discount of 45 per cent – granting discounts of 15 per cent for youth and 10 per cent for his troubled upbringing, in addition to the existing 20 per cent discount for his guilty plea.
A pre-sentence report noted the defendant’s “dysfunctional, abusive and violent background”, in which he started staying with friends at age 9 to avoid his home life and moved out at age 15, staying in his car when he couldn’t find a roof to sleep under. He had previous gang connections with Young Mangere East Finest, the Tongan Crip Gang, Time is Money and Killer Beez. Although no longer connected to Killer Beez, Tangi acknowledged some ongoing connections with the Mongols, judges at both hearings noted.
The sentencing judge said in May that he gave only a modest discount for the defendant’s young age because the discount is intended for situations in which the defendant engaged in “unplanned behaviour, acting impulsively”. Tangi’s decision to arm himself was pre-meditated rather than impulsive, he said.
In the High Court last month, public defence lawyer Benjamin Bosomworth argued that while there may be a lack of impulsivity in this case, his client was “obviously immature and easily influenced by older gang members”, which should have made him eligible for a greater youth discount. Justice Becroft agreed.
“In my view, it is the age of the offender, and the consequent lack of maturity, that should primarily mitigate offending, rather than a narrow inquiry as to the impulsivity or otherwise of that offending,” he wrote, noting that youth discounts remain an “evolving concept”.
“Inevitably, over time, a more nuanced approached to youth discounts will be developed.”
The defence also strongly urged the judge to allow Tangi’s release on home detention, but Justice Becroft said that would be a step too far despite “sympathy and concern for Mr Tangi, particularly given his relative youth, obvious immaturity and hopeful prospects of rehabilitation”.
Deterrence is needed when considering the “concerning undertones” of possessing in public “a weapon which has no legitimate purpose and which exists to wound or kill”, Justice Becroft agreed with the sentencing judge.
“Frankly, this is a recipe for disaster,” he said of the facts of the case. “It is not a remote possibility that if Mr Tangi was confronted with what he thought were the rivals of his associates, fatalities would result. There is no place for a loaded firearm of this nature, in suburban Auckland, especially in broad daylight, when children could be going to school and families attending their normal business.”