Toilet Paper Profiteers Will Be Prosecuted, Warns Dutton

by Sonia Hickey & Ugur Nedim

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australia Border Force (ABF) have teamed up to catch hoarders of supermarket goods who are selling them on the black market.

In recent weeks, the camaraderie and community spirit shared by thousands of Australians during the devastating droughts, bushfires and floods has been almost completely abandoned as people fight over toilet paper in supermarkets, get arrested, and strip the supermarket shelves of more than they personally need in a panic-stricken response to Coronavirus.

Profiteering

Now the AFP, ABF and State police forces are turning their attention to catching those who’ve been hoarding for profit; that is, capitalising on people’s fear and panic by selling supermarket goods on the black market to those desperate for items that are unavailable in supermarkets. There have been reports of 24-packs of toilet paper selling regularly for more than $100 online.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has sent out a stern warning to anyone wanting to make a quick buck: “I think they are either selling some of the product overseas or they are selling it in a blackmarket arrangement in Australia. I’m going to come after those people and I’ll give them a fair warning now: it won’t be a pretty experience when we deal with them.”

And Dutton has pointed to criminal laws against participating in a criminal group to back up his warnings.

Profiteering during hard times is nothing new. We certainly saw it during the droughts, when scammers were taking money from farmers for stock feed which never arrived. During the bushfires, fraudsters disguised as charity collectors took cash, willingly handed over from innocent people wanting to help, to line their own pockets.

What is a black market?

Purchasing and selling products with a hefty profit margin, might be immoral, but in itself, it is  not illegal. But, it becomes illegal if the products are illegal, or if the products are legal but stolen or illegally purchased, or sold through an unregistered business and / or without paying taxes. The internet and social media have made it possible for the black market to thrive.

While there is absolutely no question that if people are found to have broken the law, they should be punished … but any action by our police and border forces won’t return products to the supermarket shelves where they are desperately needed most. And unfortunately, their collective actions won’t do anything to restore common sense and measured decision-making, because, as we have all witnessed in the last month or so, when people aren’t able to get what they need, panic sets in. And panic begets panic. Then it becomes hysteria, which is not helpful in a time of crisis.

Plus, these investigations will take time and expensive government resources away from other pressing issues.

Domestic Violence support services are already reporting a spike in reported incidents of domestic and family violence as victims are locked in isolation with their abusers as a result of ‘self-distancing’ measures being encouraged by health authorities.

 What is the offence of participating in a criminal group?

Participation in a criminal group is an offence under section 93T of the Crimes Act 1900 which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison

To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

  1. You participated in a criminal group,
  2. You knew or ought reasonably have known it was a criminal group, and
  3. You knew or ought reasonably have known that your participation contributed to the occurrence of criminal activity.

The maximum penalty increases to 10 years where:

  • You directed the activities of a criminal group,
  • You knew it was a criminal group, and
  • You knew or were reckless as to whether that participation contributed to the occurrence of criminal activity.

A 10 year maximum is also applicable where:

  • You assaulted another person, or destroyed or damaged property of another, or intended to do so, and
  • Intended by that action to participate in a criminal group.

The penalty increases to a maximum of 14 years where the person assaulted was a law enforcement officer in the execution of his or her duty.

The maximum increases to 15 years where:

  • You directed the activities of a criminal group,
  • Those activities were organised and ongoing,
  • You knew it was a criminal group, and
  • You knew or were reckless as to whether that participation contributed to the occurrence of criminal activity.

A ‘criminal group’ is one which is comprised of 3 or more people whose objective is to:

  • Obtain material benefits from conduct that constitutes a ‘serious indictable offence’, including conduct outside NSW which would amount to such an offence if committed within the state, or
  • Commit ‘serious violence offences’, including conduct outside NSW which would amount to such offences if committed within the state.

A ‘serious indictable offence’ is one that carries a maximum penalty of at least 5 years in prison

A ‘serious violence offence’ is one punishable by at least 10 years which involves:

  • Loss of a person’s life or serious risk thereof,
  • Serious injury to a person or serious risk thereof,
  • Serious damage to property where a person’s safety is endangered, or
  • Perverting the course of relating to a case involving any of the above

Defences to these charges include duress and necessity.

Could criminal activity become more prevalent?

On the back of the recent natural disasters, some economic experts are predicting a recession worse than the GFC which could mean for some people, job losses, financial strain, becoming homeless, turning to theft as a way to survive.

As travel bans and lockdowns continue, and opportunities for social engagements dwindle, there’s an increased likelihood of mental and emotional health problems too.

These are definitely unprecedented times and many people are already feeling the tension of the current situation and as yet there is no end in sight.

 

Authors

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with over 20 years of experience as a criminal defence lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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