Sniffer dog searches: Festival-goers push for legal action

Police have been forced to defend their use of drug sniffer dogs after patrons were refused entry to music festivals, despite not carrying drugs. Source: AAP

Exclusive: A group of Sydney festival-goers could mount a legal challenge against police after being refused entry to two recent music festivals.

A group of Sydney music fans “subjected to humiliating strip searches” and then refused entry to two recent music festivals despite not carrying any drugs are considering legal action against the NSW Police Force.

A total of 187 people were denied entry to the Midnight Mafia music festival in May after being approached by police sniffer dogs, according to the NSW Greens. None of them were found to be carrying drugs but were strip searched or patted down by police officers before being told they were not allowed to attend the festival.

The Redfern Legal Centre is now working with several of those who were refused entry to pursue possible legal action against the NSW Police Force on the basis officers were not legally allowed to deny them entry.

Police search a festival goer at the Good Vibrations music festival at Centennial Park.
Police search a festival goer at the Good Vibrations music festival at Centennial Park.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who runs Sniff Off (a program alerting people to the proximity of police sniffer dogs via social media), described the policy of refusing entry without any proof of wrongdoing as an “ affront to civil liberties”.

“People could not believe they were being refused entry to a festival after they were searched and no drugs were found,” Mr Shoebridge told SBS News.

“It’s a case of heads you’re guilty, tails you’re also guilty, according to NSW police – this is a massive overreach by police.

“This is an unlawful act because it’s interfering with the contact between a ticket buyer and the venue – people bought tickets to go to the festival and police are breaching that contract,” he claimed. 

Greens MP David Shoebridge runs the Sniff Off Campaign.
Greens MP David Shoebridge runs the Sniff Off Campaign.

When contacted by SBS News this week, the NSW Police Force declined to confirm how many people were denied entry to Midnight Mafia at Sydney Showground, but in a Facebook post prior to June’s Above and Beyond Festival reinforced its policy of denying entry if a sniffer dog approached a person.

“Police will exclude any person from the venue that the drug dog indicates has or who has recently had drugs on them, regardless of whether drugs are located,” South West Metropolitan Region Commander, Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell said in the post.

“Quite simply, if you handle or use drugs you will not be permitted to remain at the venue.”

Several patrons were also refused entry to Above and Beyond after being stopped, searched and found to not be in possession of drugs.  Following the festival, promoters Symbiotic announced those who bought tickets would be offered a full refund if they were refused entry, while Midnight Mafia's organisers have urged anyone rejected to contact them about potential refunds.

'Very demeaning process'

The Redfern Legal Centre has challenged police authority to refuse entry if no offence has been committed.

The centre’s police accountability solicitor Sam Lee said many of the festival-goers she was dealing with felt they had been “humiliated” by the “public, very demeaning process” of being stopped, searched and then ejected.

“Young people are being subjected to humiliating strip searches, and having their festival ticket confiscated or ripped-up, even though no drugs have been found,” she told SBS News.

“It’s time to test the legality of such actions by police and to allow young people to just enjoy being young.

Police say the sniffer dogs are trained to detect a variety of drugs.
Police say the sniffer dogs are trained to detect a variety of drugs.

Ms Lee said: “In 2006 the NSW Ombudsman found drug dogs were overwhelming ineffective in targeting drug supply. Yet over ten years on they are still being used”.  

The 2006’s Review of the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 found that in 74 per cent of incidents where drug dogs approached a person, “no drug offence is detected”.

“Whether this is because the drug detection dogs are so adept at detecting drugs that they identify minuscule amounts, residual odours and prescription medications, or whether they simply make mistakes, does not alter the offence detection rate, nor the fact that many people are subjected to an intrusive public search with no result,” the report states.

One woman, who was searched by police while sitting in an inner west Sydney hotel with a bag of groceries, told the 2006 report, officers told her to empty her bag onto the table.

“No drugs were found. She stated ‘I think the dog smelled the crumbed chicken schnitzel that I had in my bag and which was to be for myself and my husband for dinner’,” the report states. 

The woman said: "I mentioned this to the police and one of them replied that the dogs were not trained for that."

The NSW Police Force has defended the use of the dogs at music festivals.

“Drug Detection Dogs are trained to detect a range of prohibited drugs,” a spokesperson told SBS News this week.

“Drug Detection Dogs are one of a number resources used by the NSWPF which assist in the detection and enforcement of those within our community who choose to be illegally involved with prohibited drugs.”

The spokesperson declined to comment about the effectiveness of the dogs or why the new policy had been implemented at recent music festivals, for operational reasons. 

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