What to do If the Cops Try to Search You at a Festival This Summer
A handy guide to drug stop and searches, that definitely isn't legal advice.
Tougher policing measures and heavy handed drug enforcement haven't resulted in less harm at Australian music festivals. Every festival season still brings scores of drug-related illnesses, overdoses, and even deaths. And every drug-related festival death is a huge and devastating loss to the victim's family, friends, and community.
All the research we have suggests that proper harm reduction measures—like the monumental decision to allow pill testing services at the Split Milk festival in Canberra this November—is the best thing we can do to prevent these tragic deaths. What doesn't work? Stricter policing. And yet the prolific use of general drug detection dogs, or sniffer dogs, as part of police search operations continues across Australia—increasingly at music festivals.
Dr Peta Malins is a lecturer in justice and legal studies at RMIT in Melbourne. Over the past three years, her research has focused on the impacts of using drug detection dogs at music festivals, in bars and clubs, and on public transport. Her findings show that sniffer dogs don't stop people from taking drugs—they just change how people consume and transport them.
"Avoiding drug detection can mean people panic upon seeing the dogs and consume their drugs immediately rather than spacing them out through an event as planned. [Or use their] drugs prior to arriving rather than bringing them in and spacing out the use," Dr Peta explains. "[Or] stashing drugs internally (anal and vaginal cavities); or buying drugs inside festivals from unknown sources to avoid carrying drugs in."
Despite the risks of drug detection at festivals and parties, many states are actually looking to extend police powers. In Victoria, police minister Lisa Neville wants to make it easier for the cops to stop and search you at music festivals—a move many think is directly targeting bush doofs. It's expected this move would likely include the removal of "reasonable suspicion," meaning the police could be able to search anyone for any reason.
But even under the current laws police have the power to stop, search, and detain you if they reasonably suspect that you have drugs or anything dangerous or unlawful on you. The only basis required for a search in these contexts is a reasonable suspicion held by the police officer. Reasonable suspicion is a low threshold and may be met by your presence in a high risk area.
So just as important as your water, sunscreen, and ticket when you're heading to a festival is knowing your rights and responsibilities during a police drug search. The police are not obliged to explain the process to you as it is occurring, which is why you need to be informed beforehand.
Please note: this information is only intended as a guide to the law and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice.
Before a Search
To obtain your consent lawfully, a police officer has to explain that they want to search you, what will be involved, and ask if you consent.
You may refuse a search but you should acknowledge that you are willing to co-operate if they require you to submit to a search. Remember that your consent to a search will not be required if the police reasonably suspect you have drugs on you.
Record your non-consent with the officer by stating, "I do not consent to this search."
Name and address
You must provide your name and address if asked, otherwise you have committed an offence.
You do not have to answer any further questions if asked during a search.
During a Search
Try to remain as calm as possible. Searches can be fast, confusing, and extremely overwhelming. If the police officer has the right to search you, you must let them do their job. You can potentially be charged with "hindering police" if the officer alleges that you did something that stopped them from performing their duty. If you resist the search, you may be charged with offences like hindering a police search or resisting arrest. If you become agitated, you could be arrested or fined for being abusive.
Pat Down Search
The police can perform a pat down search where they run their hands over your clothes and ask you to remove your jackets, jumpers, or to turn out your pockets. They can also search your bags, as well as your vehicle. You must be searched by a police officer the same gender as you, unless this not reasonably possible.
Strip searches must be conducted in private. They should be performed by an officer the same gender as you, unless this is not reasonably possible. During the search, an officer will have you remove all your clothing so they may search you entirely. If you are under 18 or have a cognitive disability, a parent or guardian should be present. If the circumstances are urgent or you're in a 'designated area', the police don't have to allow for a third person person to be present In the context of getting strip searched at a party or festival, an officer cannot perform any internal searches of your body without your consent and without a doctor who is of the same sex as you. If you don't consent the police need to get a court order in writing to conduct it.
Filming the Search
Yes, it is legal to film the police. You have the legal right to film the police if you are in a public place, and as long as it does not interfere with the performance of the police officer's duties. If an officer tells you to stop filming, calmly state you have a right to do so but follow their instructions to ensure you're not obstructing them doing their job.
After a Search
If you are found with any prohibited items, you should be given a list of all items that have been seized. You should confirm the name, rank, and station of the officer who's searched you and, as soon as possible, write down a detailed, step-by-step account of the incident. If you feel like the officer has used unreasonable force during your search or arrest, or you have been hurt during the process you should file a complaint. You can also do so if the police have attempted to use mirrors, recording devices, or to perform internal body searches during a strip search without your consent. This can be done online via the Victorian, NSW, QLD, Tasmania, South Australian, NT police websites.
Nevena Spirovska is a drug law reform activist with harm reduction organisation Unharm!