Police powers and my rights with the Police

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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, it’s best to go along with it and then make a complaint afterwards.  If you want, you can take notes on your phone about what’s happened so you don’t forget.

Move along powers

Sometimes the police can ask you to leave a place. 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:

  • acting in an anti-social way or in a way where it’s likely you’ll cause injury to other people or damage to property (including being drunk in public)
  • getting in the way of other people or traffic;
  • harassing or annoying other people;
  • causing fear to other people;
  • giving out (or they think you will give out) illegal drugs; or
  • planning to buy illegal drugs.

These police powers don’t apply if you’re just protesting about a particular issue.

Talking to the police

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

  • the police think you’re under 18 and drinking or have alcohol in a public place;
  • the police think you were near where a serious crime happened and they think you can help them;
  • you are driving a car or riding a motorbike; or
  • you are involved in a car accident.

It is against the law to give the police a fake name or address. You could be fined up to $220!

Besides 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  and place of duty. The police, by law, have to tell you this information. You should write this down so you don’t forget. You can also politely ask them questions such as “Can you tell me why you need my name and address?”

Police interviews

You can’t be forced to attend a police interview unless you are under arrest.  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.

Before the police interview you, they have to tell you that you can call a friend or family member  and a lawyer. If you choose to do this, they have to let you speak with that person in private.  You also have the right to have someone over 18 with you while you are being interviewed.

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?

The police can search you without a warrant if they think you have:

  • stolen goods;
  • weapons, like guns or knives;
  • illegal drugs;
  • anything dangerous; or
  • something that you will use to commit a crime.

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

How will I be searched?

There are two main types of searches – frisk and strip searches.

For all kinds of searches, if it is possible, the police must have someone of the same sex do the search; and not embarrass you (especially in public).

If you are being difficult, a police officer is allowed to use reasonable force to search you and can arrest you as well. Therefore, it’s a good idea to cooperate 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.

Frisk searches

A police officer can pat down or run a metal detector over the outside of your clothes to feel for guns, knives, drugs or other items. The police may also check your outer clothes (while you wear them or after they have asked you to take them off) and any pockets for these items.  

The officer isn’t allowed to search around your private areas unless they think it’s necessary. But if the officer thinks you are hiding something, they can ask you to open your mouth or shake your hair.

Strip searches

Strip searches can only be done if police think it’s really necessary, serious and urgent. For example, if someone will get hurt. You can’t be strip searched if you’re under 10 years old.

A police officer can ask you to remove all or some of your clothes but this has to be done in a private place. Strip searches can’t be done in front of people who aren’t the same sex as you and if you are under 18 and over 10, you must have a a parent or carer with you while it’s going on.

Other searches

If you are at school, the police can search your bag and locker for knives or other dangerous things.

The police can also use sniffer dogs to search you for illegal drugs at sporting events, concerts and at other public places or events.

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

If the police think you’re under 18, they can take and keep any alcohol that they think you’ve been drinking in public and also any cigarettes they find on you. A police officer can also take and keep anything that belongs to you if they think:

  • it’s stolen;
  • it can be used to prove someone committed a crime;
  • it’s something dangerous, like a weapon; or
  • it’s an illegal drug.

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, you cancontact us here.

When can I be arrested?

The police can arrest you if they think:

  • you’re committing a crime;
  • you’ve already committed a crime;
  • you’re in immediate danger; or
  • you’re about to cause harm to someone else or their property.

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 can use as much force as they need to arrest you or stop you escaping, but nothing more.  This means that if you cooperate, the police can’t use force, but the more you resist arrest the more force police can use.

If you think the police have behaved inappropriately, it’s best to go along with it and make a complaint letter.  For information on how to make a complaint, please see our page on Complaints about Police.

How long can police keep me for?

If you are arrested, the police can keep you for up to six hours unless they get special permission from a court to keep you longer.  

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

Further help

If you’re under 18 and in serious trouble with the police, you should call the NSW Legal Aid Youth Hotline on 1800 10 18 10.

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

If you are Indigenous

If you are an indigenous person then you should let the police know this. The police have rules they have to follow when speaking to and dealing with indigenous people. This includes having to call the Aboriginal Legal Service (“ALS”) if you are arrested and haven’t organised your own lawyer.  The police must call the ALS after you give them your identification but before they question you.  

ALS also gives general legal advice and support. You can contact the ALS at:

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