“I removed my clothes one piece at a time as requested.
When we had stripped down to our underwear in the street, we were searched. I honestly felt the only way to prevent the search becoming more intrusive or sexual was to remain as quiet and docile as possible.
I later wondered why I was so passive all I could answer was that it was an experience similar to sexual assault.
I felt the same helplessness, the same abuse by a male in authority, the same sense of degradation and lack of escape (St Kilda Pedestrian, Published in an Australian Institute of Criminology study, Strip Searches: Sexual Assault).”
Strip-searching is an extremely invasive kind of police search and should only ever be carried out in extraordinary circumstances.
As demonstrated by the story of the woman above, it can be degrading when police take advantage of their positions of power and authority, and act outside the law.
When dealing with police, unfortunately, we cannot always rely on officers to stick to the rules, which is why it is so important to know your rights when dealing with the police.
So what are the rules in NSW when it comes to strip-searching?
When can it occur?
You can only be searched if:
(a) You are under arrest; and
(b) Police reasonably suspect that you are:
- Concealing important evidence of a crime;
- Concealing something dangerous; or
- Hiding weapons or drugs
Not only this, but a police officer or other person authorised to conduct a search can only search you if they suspect on reasonable grounds that:
- It is necessary to conduct a strip search for the purposes of the search; and
- The urgency of the circumstances require the strip search to be carried out.
Where can it occur?
According to the Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act, strip searches must be conducted in a private area, and away from the presence or view of anyone of the opposite sex.
However these rules apply only in so far as it is “reasonably practicable in the circumstances”.
Who can conduct a strip-search?
A strip search can only be conducted by a person of the same gender, so if you are a woman, a strip search on you should only be conducted by another woman.
This rule must be followed unless there are exceptional circumstances that prevent this from occurring.
A male medical practitioner can be present during the search, unless you object to his presence.
What can and can’t occur during a search?
You may be asked to remove some or all of your clothing during a strip search.
According to Police Guidelines, any search requiring more than removing an outer layer of clothing should be considered as a strip search.
During a strip search, you should not be made to remove any more clothes than what is necessary for the purposes of the search.
And importantly, police must not search any body cavities or include an examination of the body by touch.
Police cannot conduct any more visual inspection than is necessary in the circumstances.
What can I do if I have been illegally strip-searched?
If you have been subjected to an illegal strip-search and any evidence derived from such a search was found, it is essential that you seek legal advice right away.
A good criminal lawyer can ask to get the charges withdrawn since the evidence was obtained illegally; or if the matter does go to court, your lawyer can push to keep it out of court.
Even if police did not find any incriminating evidence during an illegal strip search, you may still wish to make a formal complaint to the NSW Ombudsman or pursue legal proceedings for assault.
Unscrupulous police officers may rely on the fact that the person they are intimidating does not know of, or will not try to use, their rights.
This allows them to keep on abusing their power.
On the other hand, if police know that you are informed of your rights, they will sometimes think twice about trying to violate them.
If you are not sure whether or not your rights have been violated, or incriminating evidence was found during an illegal search, contact a criminal lawyer immediately.