The WA Police Force has been slammed during a coronial inquest into the plight of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman who died in police cells after being arrested for failing to pay fines.
The inquest heard that in the hours before her death, Ms Dhu was crying out in pain, vomiting, and had fallen over and hit her head on the concrete floor of her cell. From that point, ‘Ms Dhu’s clinical state rapidly worsened… she was in an advanced state of septic shock and only hours from death’. Despite this, police laughed at Ms Dhu, told her to ‘shut up’ and accused her of ‘faking it’.
The findings raise serious concerns about the treatment of vulnerable people in police custody – especially Indigenous Australians.
A Tragic End
Ms Dhu was taken into custody at the South Hedland Police Station in August 2014 after failing to pay $3,622 in fines.
According to family members, Ms Dhu’s ribs had been broken by her partner in an unprovoked attack just weeks earlier. Whilst in custody, Ms Dhu told police she felt unwell and was unable to feel her legs.
But police dismissed her concerns, with one officer noting that she ‘appear[ed] to be suffering withdrawals from drug use and not coping well with being in custody.’
Ms Dhu was taken to hospital some time after vomiting – but police advised medical staff that she was ‘faking it’ and the transfer was not classified as ‘urgent’.
She was then returned to police cells, where she was later found unconscious. Ms Dhu was dragged from the bed and taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had suffered a heart attack linked to septicaemia and pneumonia resulting from her broken ribs.
It appears that Ms Dhu was victimised by her abusive partner, then by tough laws that disproportionately impact upon disadvantaged people, and then by the police.
Prison Sentence for Failing to Pay Fines?
Ms Dhu’s case has reignited campaigns to change tough Western Australian laws which allow people to be locked up for failing to pay fines.
Section 58 of the Sentencing Act 1995 (WA) gives magistrates the power to imprison people for failing to pay fines if issued for:
- An indictable offence which carries a statutory penalty of imprisonment; or
- A summary offence and the court is satisfied that the offender is about to leave the State, and the absence of the offender from the State would defeat or materially prejudice the operation of the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 in respect of the fine.
Section 58 also says that ‘if the court does not also impose a term of imprisonment on the offender, it may order the offender to be imprisoned until the fine is paid, but in any event for not longer than a period set by the court.’
And Section 59 of the Act states that:
If a superior court fines an offender for an offence it may order that if the offender does not pay the fine before a date set by the court the offender is to be imprisoned until the offender’s liability to pay the fine is discharged —
- by payment of the whole of the fine; or
- by the offender serving the whole of the period of imprisonment determined under subsection (3), or a shorter period set by the court; or
- by a combination of payment of part of the fine and the offender serving part of that period of imprisonment.
A number of prominent politicians have spoken out since Ms Dhu’s death, arguing that these laws simply give the state the power to lock up vulnerable and disadvantaged people who cannot afford to pay their fines.
It is estimated that around 1,100 people are sent to prison each year in WA as a result of unpaid fines.
The policy is grounded in the belief that the prospect of a stint in prison will encourage people to pay up.
But in reality, those who simply do not have the financial means to pay their fines – such as Ms Dhu – are being locked up and left to wither away.
In addition, the WA Labor party argues that prison is not an efficient or effective solution to the problem of unpaid fines because it costs the state more to keep a person locked up – and the policy unfairly targets disadvantaged groups in society, such as women attempting to flee domestic violence and Indigenous people.
Since her death, Ms Dhu’s family have partnered with the Human Rights Law Centre to fight to change these laws.
It is hoped that the spotlight on Ms Dhu’s case will encourage the government to rectify the situation.