Suspected terrorists are not faced with the wide-ranging police stop-and-search powers that indigenous problem drinkers 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,” Mr Hunyor told AAP.
“The law gives police extraordinary powers in relation to APOs which frankly you wouldn’t expect suspected terrorists to be subjected to.”
He 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.”
On Tuesday the Territory government announced that more than 800 people had been issued with the orders.
A number of NAAJA’s clients have been issued multiple APOs, with one person issued 10, a sign they are not working, Mr Hunyor said.
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 this represents “an unbelievable drop” of 22 per cent.
“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.
He 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.
However, official year-on-year crime statistics show that from 2012 to 2013, there was a 12.3 per cent increase in alcohol-related assaults across the Territory.
“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 they criminalise alcoholics.
“To be placing people on these orders 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,” Mr Hunyor said.
“That is just completely a unprincipled way to deal with a difficult issue.”