Whether you’re Groovin the Moo, bringing the Blues to Byron Bay or Touching Base it’s likely you will encounter one or more sniffer dogs keeping an eye (or nose) out for illegal substances. If you attend festivals or other similar events, it is important to understand your rights should you find yourself the subject of interest of a sniffer dog.

The law on sniffer dogs

Police sniffer dogs have been the bone of contention for several years with much controversy and debate over their use and utility for drug detection. Currently, the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) (LEPRA) allows police officers to use sniffer dogs for police purposes including the detection of prohibited drugs.

Police officers are authorised to use sniffer dogs to search people without a warrant in the following circumstances:

  • at entertainment events, concerts, festivals and sporting events;
  • in hotels / clubs where alcohol is served;
  • on public transport systems and at stations (subject to certain limitations);
  • in tattoo parlours;
  • in and around the Kings Cross precinct.

Personal searches and reasonable suspicion

Police may stop, search and detain a person if there is reasonable suspicion that the person has drugs, illegal substances or dangerous items in their possession.

The police must hold reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime before they carry out a personal search. The term ‘reasonable suspicion’, is not legally defined however may be inferred by a person’s behaviour, location or through some other police intelligence.

An ‘indication’ by a sniffer dog at a festival or event is considered reasonable suspicion and triggers the legality for the police to conduct a search. An ‘indication’ occurs when the dog sits down beside a person.

Conducting a search

After an indication by a sniffer dog, a police officer may request that you be searched. This may involve patting you down (whilst clothed), requiring you to remove external clothing such as a coat and shoes, searching through your clothing or belongings and / or using a metal detector.

The police may also request that you shake your hair and open your mouth.

A request to remove more than the outer layers of your clothing is considered a strip search and must only be performed if there are reasonable grounds to suspect it is necessary. A strip search under these circumstances must not involve touching the person or searching any of that person’s body cavities.

Your rights and what to expect

The following points summarise your rights and the police officer’s obligations:

  • A sniffer dog must not touch you and the police officer handling the dog must take all reasonable precautions to prevent the dog from touching you. The police officer must keep the dog under control when using the dog to carry out a general drug detection.
  • If conducting a search, the police officer must provide the name, rank and station of the person carrying out the search and tell you why the search is being conducted.
  • Understand the difference between complying and consenting. You should comply with the police request, but you need not consent to the request. If you do not consent to being searched, you should clearly state your objection to the police and request that your objection be noted.
  • The police cannot prevent their activities being filmed, including a search. If you wish your search to be filmed by a friend, it is advisable to let the police officer know but ask your friend not to get in the way.
  • A strip search must be conducted in a private area, by a police officer of the same gender, and out of sight by people of the opposite gender. The police officer must not physically touch you during a strip search.
  • Special provisions apply if the person is aged between 10 and 17 years or if the person has an intellectual disability.

Always keep a record of the circumstances leading to the search and the manner in which the search was conducted. This could impact upon a subsequent charge or be relevant should you wish to make a complaint.

If you enjoy the festivities of live music and other social events, it is important to know the laws about the use of sniffer dogs and personal searches. Knowing your rights and being assertive, but polite, is generally the best way of approaching these situations.

This information is for general purposes only and you should obtain professional advice relevant to your circumstances.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on (02) 9818 2888 or email [email protected].