Issues with the police

Students often contact our Legal and Advocacy department looking for advice or representation following an altercation with the police. 

Sometimes it's related to drugs at a festival, sometimes it's about a bouncer at a nightclub. Whatever the situation you find yourself in, we will ALWAYS do our best to help you.

When can police search you?

Police can search you if they believe on "reasonable grounds" that you're in possession of drugs, stolen goods, or something used in connection to an offence. Remember that just being a university student is NOT enough to constitute reasonable grounds. In a public place, police can also search you if they believe on reasonable grounds that you're carrying a dangerous object, like a knife. In this special case, just being in an area associated with violence can contribute to reasonable grounds.

If a police officer would be able to search your person under these circumstances, they're also able to search any vehicle that you're in.

Police officers tend to ask to search bags even when they don't have the right to demand it. If you consent to this then you're waiving your right to that privacy. Many students get into trouble when they think that police officers are demanding a search when they're just asking. Make sure you confirm whether the police are demanding a search, and if they aren't, refuse!

If the police do not have the legal right to search you (e.g. they ask to search your bag without any reasonable grounds of belief, and you refuse, but then they demand, saying that your refusal counts as 'reasonable grounds'), then anything found in the search will NOT be valid evidence in any case against you.

What do I have to tell police?

Police officers can demand the identity of people who they believe on 'reasonable grounds' to be involved in an offense, to be someone who has information relating to an offense, an AVO suspect or a driver, or someone given a 'move on' order. If you're required to give the police your identity, all you need to tell them is your name and address, but you must be able to provide proof. While giving a fake name might seem funny, it can be punished by up to a $5000 fine.

If you are arrested, you still only have to give police your identity. To use a cliche, anything else you say can and will be used against you, so your best bet is to say nothing until you've received legal advice.

What can police do if I haven't done anything illegal?

Even if you haven't done anything which you can be arrested or penalised for, police officers hold "move on powers" to maintain order.

A police officer can request that you leave an area if you are intoxicated, or if they believe that you are selling drugs or causing harassment or intimidation. Whether you are or aren't is irrelevant, as long as the police have reasonable grounds for their belief.

If you are asked to move on, check whether the officer is using their move on power, or simply asking you to go.

What if I think a police officer has acted illegally?

Ask for the identification number of any police officer who you think is acting illegally. Keep a record as best you can of the circumstances surrounding the actions, as it may be needed later in court.

If you want to make a complaint about police

The NSW Ombudsman has the authority to deal with complaints against the police. You can also contact the Local Area Commander or the Police Commissioner about a police complaint. For minor issues involving individual officers it may be better to contact the station where the officers are based.

A rule of thumb is that if you don't have anything to hide or worry about, there is no reason not to cooperate with the police.

How do drug laws work?

The three common offences faced by students are possession, use, and supply.

Possession is proved if an illegal drug was in your control, AND if you knew that they were there. If your mate leaves something in your house and you knew it was there but laid no claim to them, it's not necessarily in your control. What this means is that if drugs are found in a share house or similarly public place and no one claims them (or claims they're someone elses), a possession conviction is unlikely.

Use is proved if it is proved that the substance was actually an illegal drug. If the substance has been fully consumed, the police cannot analyse the substance without blood tests which can only be done by after arrest. This means unless there is more of the substance to test, the police will usually have to rely on an admission by you to arrest you and then test to confirm.

Supply is a much more serious offence than either possession or use, with serious penalties. Even if you aren't caught actually supplying, possession of more than the traffickable quantity (eg, 300g of cannabis, 15 pills of ecstasy) is considered supply unless you can show it was just for you.

For further information, look up the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).

The laws regarding police powers are contained in the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW).

Steroids are controlled by the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1996 (NSW).

Caught out? Need to go to court? Legal representation is available to Arc members who have paid a subsidised service fee of $29 a year. 

Need more information? 

If you are a UNSW student and Arc member we can give you free legal advice. Send us an email or contact Arc Reception to book an appointment with us.

Legal & Advocacy

P:(02) 9385 7700


Arc Reception

P:(02) 9385 7700

H:9AM-6PM (during term), 9AM-5PM (other times)

A:Gate 5 on High St, UNSW