Police powers and my rights

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I have come into contact with the police. What should I do?

If you come into contact with the police, it’s a good idea to make sure you stay calm and respectful. Being aggressive or violent with police will probably make things worse even if you have done nothing wrong. You can get into trouble just for behaving badly with the police.

For example, if you swear at the police, or even around the police, or if you try to dodge police while they are trying to arrest you, you could be charged for doing these things.

If you feel like you’re being treated unfairly by them, there are ways to fix this later on by getting legal help. It’s a good idea to take notes of what’s happened either with a pen and paper or in your phone so you can better remember these events later.

Move along powers

Sometimes the police can ask you to leave a place and not come back for up to 6 hours.  This is called being told to ‘move on.’  You can be told to move on from a place by the police if they have a reason to think you are or are about to do something violent in that public place.

If you don’t ‘move on’ after police tell you to, you could be fined up to $300!  However, the police can’t ask you to move on if you are protesting at your work or protesting about a particular issue.

Talking to the police

Sometimes you have to give your name and address like if:

  • The police think you or have broken the law; and
  • You may be able to help the police investigate that particular crime.The police must give you a reason why they need your name and address.

It is against the law to give the police a fake name or address. You could be fined up to $500!

Besides from giving the police your name and address in the situations above, you do not need to say anything else.  The officer must tell you that you don’t need to answer their questions, but that anything you do or say can be used later as evidence (proof that you did something) in court.

If you think the police don’t have a good reason to ask for your details, or to search you, it is a good idea to ask for their name, rank, and place of duty. The police, by law, have to tell you this information. You should write this down so you don’t forget.

Police interviews

First of all, when you are talking to police, nothing is off the record, no matter what they say.  If the police ask you to go to the station with them, you should ask if you’re under arrest. If you aren’t, you don’t have to go.

The police cannot interview you unless your parent, a carer, a family member, a lawyer or any other responsible adult you trust is present. If that person can’t be with you for the interview within 2 hours, the police must find someone who is independent of the police, like a youth worker, to be present.

The police also can interview you immediately and without another person present if they believe you have broken the law and they think it’s necessary to talk to you to avoid the death or serious injury off someone else, or serious damage being done to property.  

You also have the right to remain silent. This means you don’t have to say anything in an interview except your name and address.

Are the police allowed to search me?

If the police don’t have a warrant (a warrant is special permission from a court), they can still search you if:

  • they reasonably believe you have something relevant to a serious crime or have some stolen property; and
  • it is necessary for the police to search you to stop that thing from being hidden, lost or destroyed; and
  • the situation is serious and urgent;

The police can also search you without a warrant if they have reason to believe that you are carrying a knife in a public place or school.

If the police have a warrant, they can stop and search you, your car or your house.

How will I be searched?

There are three main types of searches, ordinary, frisk and strip searches.

Ordinary and frisk searches should, if it is possible, be carried out by someone of the same sex as you. Strip searches must be conducted by someone of the same sex.

It’s a good idea to cooperate with a search and you can ask questions such as “Can you tell me why you’re searching me?” If you think the police have behaved inappropriately, you can make a complaint afterwards rather than stand there and argue with them.

Ordinary searches

A police officer can ask you to remove your coat or jacket, and any gloves, shoes, socks and hat you may be wearing. They then can examine any of those pieces of clothing.

Frisk searches

A police officer can quickly pat down  the outside of your clothes, as well as check your outer clothes and any pockets or bags for guns, knives or other items.

Strip searches

A police officer can ask you to remove all or some of your clothes, but this has to be done in a private place and by an officer of the same sex as you. You can’t be strip searched if you’re under 10 years old. If you are under 18, a strip searches can only be conducted if police have arrested you or have a court order. A parent or carer should be with you while it is going on.

The police have taken my stuff. Can they do this?

The police can take and keep any alcohol that they think you’ve been drinking in public and also any cigarettes they find on you , if they think you’re under 18.

A police officer can also take anything that belongs to you if they think:

  • It is a gun or ammunition, and you don’t have a license;
  • It can be used as evidence to prove someone broke the law.
  • It is stolen

If the police take something of yours that you think is not illegal for you to have, you can ask the police for it back. If the police do not return it to you, you probably will need to ask for it back if you go to court.

If the police have taken your stuff and you’re not sure what to do, contact us here for advice.

When can I be arrested?

The police can arrest you if they think:

  • You have committed or are  committing a crime;
  • You will continue to commit a crime or another offence;
  • You might destroy or hide evidence related to a crime
  • It’s unlikely that you will show up to court if they don’t arrest you.

The police can also arrest you if they have a warrant (a warrant is special permission from a court).

The police have to always tell you why you have been arrested. If they don’t, it’s a good idea to ask.

Can the police use force to arrest me?

A police officer is only allowed to use force that’s reasonably necessary to arrest you and stop you escaping. This means that if you cooperate the police can’t use force, but the more you resist arrest the more force police can use, to a limit.

If you think the police have behaved inappropriately, it’s best to go along with it at the time and make a complaint later.  

How long can police keep me for?

If you are arrested, the police can keep you for 2 hours, or up to 8 hours if the police apply for more time from a magistrate or judge.  

If you are not under arrest, police cannot keep you and you are free to go.

Further help

If you are under 25 and have questions about police powers, you can get help here.

If you’re over 25, please contact Legal Aid ACT on 1300 654 314.

If you are Indigenous

If you are an Indigenous person then you should let the police know this. If you have any questions or problems with the law you can contact the Aboriginal Legal Service:

Phone:  1800 765 767 or (02) 6249 8488

Address: Colonial Mutual Building, Level 3, 17-21 University Avenue, Canberra City,  ACT 2601

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