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Issue #1634      April 9, 2014

Concern over NT grog law

Suspected terrorists are not faced with the wide-ranging police stop-and-search powers that Aboriginal people deemed to have a drinking problem in the Northern Territory deal with, an Aboriginal legal aid organisation says.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) says the law regarding alcohol protection orders (APOs) is so broad and unstructured that it is open to racially discriminatory implementation.

APOs ban people from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, as well as attending licensed premises, for between three and 12 months if charged with an offence that carries a six-month jail term while affected by alcohol.

But offences punishable by six months in prison include basic summary offences such as loitering, disorderly behaviour and shoplifting, NAAJA’s principal legal officer Jonathon Hunyor says.

“The idea it relates to serious crime is something we’ve told the government before is inaccurate, yet they continue to make that claim, which is disappointing because it’s not how those laws work and not how they’re being put into practice,” he said.

“The law gives police extraordinary powers in relation to APOs, which frankly you wouldn’t expect suspected terrorists to be subjected to.”

Mr Hunyor says that if police reasonably suspect a person is subject to an APO, they can search them without a warrant, without believing they have breached an APO or committed an offence, or even that they are in possession of alcohol.

“That’s completely unjustifiable, that they don’t even have to suspect that someone’s done something wrong to be able to stop them and search them,” Mr Hunyor said. “That is the sort of extraordinary power you wouldn’t even give in the matter of national security.”

Last week, the NT government announced that more than 800 people had been issued with the orders. Mr Hunyor said a number of NAAJA clients had been issued multiple APOs, with one person issued ten, a sign they were not working.

A total of 631 people were charged with assault last February, compared with 496 people this February, according to preliminary police data, the government said. Chief Minister Adam Giles said that represented “an unbelievable drop” of 22 percent. “It’s only very early days, but if the long-term trend is even close to this, it will be a major win for police in their efforts to keep the community safe,” he said.

Mr Giles also said property crime had dropped to its lowest rate since record keeping began, and attributed both sets of statistics in part to APOs, which were implemented from December. But official year-on-year crime statistics show that from 2012 to 2013, there was a 12.3 percent increase in alcohol-related assaults across the NT.

“We’re always pleased to see a reduction in crime rates, and a one month reduction in assaults is always welcome ... (but) it’s just not credible to suggest that there’s a link between a one-month reduction in assaults and APOs that have been in place for a couple of months,” Mr Hunyor said.

He said APOs were a punitive, knee-jerk law-and-order response to a public health problem, and that they criminalise alcoholics.

“To be placing orders on these people that they obviously can’t comply with – if you’re an alcoholic you can’t stop drinking tomorrow, that’s the nature of being an alcoholic, but now you’re subject to a police search without a warrant at any time – that is just completely an unprincipled way to deal with a difficult issue,” Mr Hunyor said.

Koori Mail

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