The couple who garnered widespread attention after police accused them of leaving Auckland's Covid-19 lockdown for a holiday home in Wānaka pleaded guilty today during their first court appearance.
Equestrian William Willis, 36, and lawyer Hannah Rawnsley, 26, sat side-by-side as they appeared via audio-video feed at Papakura District Court before Judge Bruce Davidson.
The judge is expected to decide the couple's sentences this afternoon. He's also been asked to decide Rawnsley's application for discharge without conviction.
The pair were charged on September 22 with failing to comply with a Covid-19 health order, which carries a maximum sentence of up to six months' prison and a $4000 fine.
Police first approached Willis and Rawnsley in Wānaka on the afternoon of Saturday, September 11, after receiving a tip through the Covid-19 online compliance tool a day earlier. The two were allowed to leave Auckland for Hamilton, despite the strict lockdown at the time, because of their essential worker status. They did so on Thursday, September 9.
They were not, however, permitted under the lockdown rules to then take a commercial flight to Queenstown and continue on in a hired car for Wānaka, authorities have said.
Prosecutor Natalie Walker argued during the hearing that the couple's actions were carefully planned, with the first ticket booked within hours of an announcement that Auckland would stay in lockdown but the rest of New Zealand would move to alert level 2.
She pointed to a text message Willis sent to an associate after learning police had been to his Auckland home.
"They came looking for me at the farm," he wrote.
"Someone has narced."
The couple initially fought to keep secret their names, as well as the fact that Willis is the son of District Court Judge Mary-Beth Sharp. Their lawyer, Rachael Reed QC, asked for an unusual emergency hearing to seek suppression before her clients were charged.
But the suppression lasted just 24 hours before the couple decided not to pursue the matter with the High Court. Instead they issued an apology.
"The decision that we took to travel to Wānaka last week was completely irresponsible and inexcusable," the couple said at the time.
"We are deeply sorry for our actions and would like to unreservedly apologise to the Wānaka community, and to all the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, for what we did.
"We understand that strict compliance is required to stamp out Covid-19 from our country. We have let everyone down with our actions, and we wholeheartedly apologise."
Willis and Rawnsley were initially set to make their first appearance at Papakura District Court on October 14. But - as has happened with most cases in recent months involving defendants who aren't in custody - the matter has was delayed repeatedly as Auckland's lockdown dragged on.
Adding to the complication of setting a court date has been the involvement of Wellington-based District Court Judge Davidson, who was appointed to oversee the case to avoid any conflicts of interest. Willis' mother is Auckland-based district court Judge Mary-Beth Sharp.
"...This is not a priority proceeding," Judge Davidson wrote in separate minutes announcing delays in October and November. "The mere fact of media interest does not elevate the matter to a priority case."
By delaying the hearing to December, after traffic light system was put in place, the judge would be more easily able to travel to Auckland for the hearing, he also noted last month.
The couple were initially set to appear at court in person for today's hearing.
But in a minute released last week citing red traffic light protocols, Judge Davidson said he will allow Willis and Rawnsley to appear via audio-video feed. Prosecutors and defence counsel appeared in person.
The judge declined applications by multiple media outlets to take photos or video of the couple during the hearing.