Festival Season, Sniffer Dogs and Searches – Your Guide to Dealing With Police at a Festival

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Josh HarrisThe article Festival Season, Sniffer Dogs and Searches – Your Guide to Dealing With Police at a Festival is written by Josh Harris, Associate, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers.

Josh Harris was admitted to practice after completing a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Before joining Doogue + George, he was an associate at the County Court of Victoria to HH Judge Lyon.

Josh is experienced in indictable crimes such as sexual offences, drug trafficking, and culpable driving. When he was a Senior Associate to the Criminal Reserve List, he was involved in the high level planning, administration, and finalising of all criminal matters listed in the County Court.

Music Festival CelebrationMusic festival season is here and many thousands of Victorians are looking forward to finally getting out their eskies, tents, blow up mattresses and heading off on an adventure with their mates. For many people it’s been a couple of years since they could sing and dance to live music pumping out from massive sound systems and feel a bit of freedom and community away from their city lives in the Victorian countryside.

Heading to a festival might fill you with a sense of excitement and anticipation. It might also fill you with a sense of anxiety due to the expected police presence you will encounter. The fact is, drugs are illegal in Victoria, however many people will use them recreationally at music festivals anyway. You would have to hide in your tent for the entire weekend to not come across someone under the influence of, or selling recreational drugs, at any major event.

There may be drug sniffer dogs. There may be car searches being conducted. There may be roaming police around the campsites. When it comes to dealing with police at festivals you should be alert but not alarmed, be polite but not subservient. Arm yourself with knowledge about your rights when dealing with police. Follow the steps listed below. Don’t let their presence impact the freedom you are entitled to feel at a festival. The police are there to keep you safe. They should be respected but never feared.

Police Searches

The fact is that there are a number of reasons that a cop may legally search you when you are entering or at a festival. The cops can stop, search and detain anyone they ‘reasonably suspect’ is carrying drugs or something dangerous (like a knife). They only need a reasonable suspicion. There must be a factual basis for this suspicion. Just because you are at a festival is not a reason to be able to search you. There needs to be something unusual about your behaviour. If you’re acting erratic or unusually nervous, that may form the basis for a reasonable suspicion. Ask the police officer what the reasonable suspicion is for them stopping you. A reasonable suspicion is not necessary for police searches at festivals if you consent to the search.

  • Police may search anything in your possession
  • They can ask you to empty your pockets or remove outer clothing
  • They can run their hands over your outer clothing
  • Police cannot question you during a search
  • You should not feel harassed or intimidated during a search.

Strip Searches in Victoria

Strip searches are commonly used in NSW and are seen as highly controversial.

Victoria Police will conduct a pat-down search as opposed to a strip search. Victorian Police policy is that strip searches are only conducted where it appears that the person in possession of a traffickable quantity of illicit drugs and police consider that a more thorough search is necessary. Strip searches are very uncommon at music festivals in Victoria. If Victorian police do want to strip search you, they will likely take you back to the local station.

Sniffer Dogs

Police may use sniffer dogs to establish a reasonable suspicion to conduct police searches at festivals. Victoria Police provide a highly visible policing presence at music festivals, which includes the use of Passive Alert Detection (PAD) Dogs. The use of PAD Dogs is part of a broader response which seeks to target people using illicit drugs at music festivals. PAD dogs are trained to screen the environment to detect a range of illicit drugs. Where a sniffer dog detects the presence of an illicit drug, it is trained to sit passively near the source to alert its handler to the detection. Sniffer dogs have been shown to be extremely ineffective. Nonetheless, if a sniffer dog indicates that someone may have an illicit drug on them, the cops can, under section 82 of the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981, search a person in a public place without a warrant.

What to Do If You are Stopped By Police at a Festival for a Search

  1. Be polite and stay calm. There is no rush for this process to occur. Do not be intimidated.
  2. Ask that a friend films the interaction from a safe distance.
    1. You can legally film the police in a public place if you are not hindering them.
  3. Ask that they activate their body worn cameras.
  4. Ask all the officers present for their name and station.
  5. Ask why you have been stopped.
  6. Ask what their reasonable suspicion is.
  7. Provide your name, address and ID (it is an offence to refuse this information).
  8. Inform the police member clearly and politely that you object to the search and do not consent.
  9. Comply with the search. Do not resist or argue with them.
  10. Note all of the above information down as soon as possible after the search, no matter what the result.

If police find drugs on you they may wish to interview you, either at the station or in ‘the field’. These next steps are important:

Call us first for advice. If you cannot call us, answer no comment to every question asked of you. If you are charged, you will likely be given a summons to attend Court. Contact a lawyer as soon as you are able. A specialist criminal law firm like ours can assist you in achieving the best possible outcome at Court. If the search was unlawful, it may be possible to seek a withdrawal of the charges or contest the charges and be acquitted.

Enjoy Your Festival

You have the right to silence. You have the right to bodily integrity. You have the right to party without being victimised by the cops. The fact is that the police can search you for so many reasons. Be polite and respectful and you are entitled to expect that Victoria Police will treat you same way.
Date Published: 11 September 2022

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