Sniffer Dogs and Your Rights

In February 2002 the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act was passed in New South Wales. This act is what originally allowed police to use sniffer dogs to perform searches without a warrant on people at pubs, at entertainment events and on certain public transport routes. This act has now been replaced with the current Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002.

This new act covers the use of sniffer dogs for general drug detection without a warrant. This act does not give police unrestricted powers to use sniffer dogs. If you are concerned or been approached by police with sniffer dogs it is important to know your rights.

Where can police use sniffer dogs?

Police are only authorised to use drug sniffer dogs to search people randomly (without a warrant) in five situations these include:

  • In Public Venues where alcohol is served, for example Pubs and Clubs
  • At entertainment events for example concerts, dance parties, street parades, and even sporting events
  • On public transport and stations but only on certain bus routes; (As of 2012, sniffer dogs can be used on all CityRail suburban train lines)
  • Tattoo parlours
  • In and around the area of Kings Cross (As of 2012, sniffer dogs can be used without a warrant on any ‘persons’ at any public place in the Kings Cross Entertainment precinct).

Any drug search of a person outside these five situations makes the search illegal, unless the police have a reasonable suspicion and/ or a warrant. If you have been approached by a police sniffer dog team, or know of police using dogs outside these areas, you should complain or report it immediately.

What are my rights if a sniffer dog approaches me?

If you are approached by a sniffer dog and it sits down next you, then police can legally search you, if you are in one of the five places where police can legally use sniffer dogs or if they have a reasonable suspicion/or warrant (see above). Here are some tips if a sniffer dog sits down next to you:

  • Stay calm and be polite. You can be fined or arrested if you swear at the police, so don’t give them an excuse
  • Cooperate and let the police search you. However, you do have the right to ask them why they are searching you
  • If they don’t identify themselves, you have the right to ask them for their name, rank and station
  • If you are found to have drugs: 
Legally you must give your name and address to police, but remember you don’t have to say anything else, if you don’t want to. This is your legal right to silence
  • If the search doesn’t find any drugs: If police still ask for your name and address, ask them whether you have to give it. If police say no, you don’t, then don’t… because they will put that info on their database and might use it against you at a later date. If police say you have to give your name and address, often it is better to cooperate and make a complaint later. Remember police can ask you for your name and address if they have reasonable grounds to believe: that you have committed a crime or you are about to commit a crime
  • If you want to make a complaint, write down what happened soon as you can so you don’t forget. Keep a record of where you where stopped, what time the incident occurred and the name, rank and station of the police involved.

You can make a complaint to the Police, the Ombudsman, NSW Council of Civil Liberties or a lawyer if the sniffer dog touches you or if the police are rude, aggressive, or behave inappropriately. For more information about making complaints about police read NUAA’s tips on making a complaint.

Are sniffer dogs effective?

The Ombudsman released their report on sniffer dogs in 2006. The report focused on the effectiveness of drug detection sniffer dogs in NSW, and the report found that sniffer dogs were not a deterrent to drug supply. The aim of introducing (Drug Detection Dogs) Act was to assist police in recognising people involved in prohibited drug supply. The Ombudsman Report found that sniffer dogs has not been an effective method of identifying people involved in prohibited drug supply, as nearly three out of five people stopped and searched by sniffer dogs were carrying no drugs. In summary the report found:

  • Approximately 73% of people identified by the dogs are not carrying drugs
  • Majority of people stopped are only carrying small amounts of cannabis
  • The few people who are found to have drugs in their possession are overwhelmingly drug users, not dealers, and many are cautioned by police under the cannabis cautioning program.

The report also raised concerns that the majority of people being stopped were young people and with small amounts of cannabis. The majority of the people found with small amounts of cannabis rarely had outstanding warrants and often had no criminal history of note. Rather than being referred to drug treatment or drug education programs, one of the aims of using sniffer dogs as stated in NSW Parliament. Instead these young offenders are facing Court and criminal charges. The Courts are left to deal with these young offenders by either fining them or recording no conviction.

Where can I get more information?

If you want to make a complaint about how you have been treated by sniffer dogs or you want to know more about your rights contact NSW Council of Civil Liberties Phone: (02) 8090 2952 or check out their website.

Sniff Off Facebook Page

The Sniff Off campaign is an initiative of the New South Wales Greens. The aim is to raise awareness of the ineffectiveness of drug detection dogs and to end the use of drug detection dogs without a warrant in public places. They have set up a Facebook page that allows members of the community to alert each other to the whereabouts of sniffer dogs, by either posting directly onto the page or sending a message to the pages admin. You can log on and see where the dogs are especially if you are travelling on public transport.

Read the Ombudsman Report here.