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Young people in audience at music festival Central Coast, NSW January 13, 2020

Strip Searches at Music Festivals – Know Your Rights

It seems that, wherever music festivals are in Australia, strip searches inevitably follow. In fact, since 2016, New South Wales (NSW) police have strip-searched 344 school-age boys, including one 11-year-old, one 12-year-old and four 13-year-olds.

As many as 122 girls were also strip-searched during the same period, including two 12-year-olds. The total number of individuals subjected to strip searches in NSW since 2016 is 11,304, of which 42 percent comprises young men aged 18 to 25.

Of course, the principle behind these strip searches is to prevent drug-related problems, and even fatalities, at music festivals. However, many people find them needlessly invasive and humiliating, and they are especially traumatic for young people.

In fact, many of these searches yield negative results, and those who are flagged by a sniffer dog also get their tickets confiscated. So, even when the strip search yields nothing, the unfortunate individual is unable to watch the concert they paid for.

With this in mind, while some strip searches are now being investigated for being potentially illegal, it is crucial for people to know their rights if they are faced with this situation.

When can police search you?

The police are there to enforce the law, but they are also themselves bound by it. They don’t go around arresting people just because they want to, or because something feels a bit off. They are subject to limitations like the rest of us, and there are conditions that must be satisfied in order for police to exercise their power and authority within their jurisdiction.
For police to stop, search, and detain you in, say, a music festival, or in any other situation, they need to have reasonable grounds to do so. If the reason behind their action is simply because they suspect that you have drugs on your person, this is not enough.

There are important indicators that need to be confirmed before they have the requisite reasonable grounds:

  • Are your pupils dilated?
  • Do you seem confused, uncoordinated or highly agitated?
  • Is your reaction to the sniffer dog exaggerated?
  • Are you avoiding eye contact?
  • Does the sniffer dog indicate near you?
  • Are you perspiring unduly?
  • Do you change your place in the line or leave the line without reason?

Affirmative answers to the above are not the only possible indicators of drug use upon being flagged by the sniffer dog. However, they can be used as a basis for the police to subject you to a strip search.

Note that, whether or not a search yields a positive result (drugs are present on the person), establishing the legality (or illegality) of the search is based on whether the officer had reasonable grounds to conduct the search in the first place.

How a search is performed

There is no clear-cut information on how a search is to be carried out. However, there are a number of legal requirements to ensure that a personal search is lawfully conducted:

  • The subject of the search must be informed that they may be required to remove their clothes, as well as the reason why;
  • The police must get the subject’s cooperation;
  • The subject must have a reasonable degree of privacy during the search;
  • The search must be done as quickly as possible;
  • The police staff doing the search must be of the same sex as the subject;
  • The breast and genitalia areas are off-limits during the search unless the officer has reasonable grounds to include them in the search;
  • The subject must not be probed or interviewed during the search.

For strip searches, there are additional rules that need to be observed:

  • The search must be conducted in a private area;
  • No individual of the opposite sex, relative to the subject, is allowed to be present during the search;
  • Individuals or personnel whose presence is unnecessary to the search must not be allowed to witness or be present;
  • There should be no probing into the subject’s body cavities or bodily examinations by touch;
  • The removal of more clothes than is necessary is not allowed; specific clothing may be removed only when the officer has reasonable grounds to require this of the subject.

What you should do if stopped by police

If you happen to be flagged by the police, and they want to speak to you, remember to:

  • Stay calm and collected;
  • Be courteous and respectful;
  • Get the following information: the officer’s name, station;
  • Ask why you have been flagged;
  • Provide basic information such as your name, address, and your ID, when asked.

When they inform you that you will be searched, make sure to:

  • Remain calm and collected;
  • Calmly and clearly inform the officer of your objection to the search;
  • Comply with the search when they decide to continue;
  • Ask them the reason for the search;
  • After they give you the reason, ask for an explanation of their suspicions;
  • Pay attention to their response and remember it.

Take note of the following during the search:

  • Who is/are present (it would be good to remember their ranks and names);
  • Everything that was said before, during and after the search;
  • If they touched you and where (make sure you remember exactly who did the touching);
  • Whether they wore activated body cameras, or if the search was filmed.

 

What happens when police perform an unlawful search

Taking note of all the details above will provide your lawyer a firm basis of whether you were subjected to a lawful or an illegal search. Any failure on the part of the police to comply with legal requirements can make the evidence obtained inadmissible in court. This can lead to case dismissal, as the prosecution will be unable to prove the charge.

In the event that the evidence is accepted by the court and a case is made, or there’s a guilty plea, a lesser punishment may be imposed because of the mistakes committed or the steps omitted during the search. Additionally, an illegal search, once proven, can also be used as grounds for a civil claim.

Attending a music festival?

Based on the strip search trends of the past three years, it would not be unreasonable to expect a police presence.

So if you are attending a music festival, you need to be ready and on your guard. Remember the above information, be conscious of your own actions, and be aware of your surroundings.

If you happen to be faced with a strip search, take note of the proceedings. Remember names and faces and seek legal advice if anything seems amiss.

Remember, even if you are facing drug charges, it doesn’t mean that you can just be strip-searched whenever and wherever. Always remember that a search, no matter the outcome, must be based on reasonable grounds.

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