Young people bear brunt of abuse of power

Issue 

BY DALE MILLS

SYDNEY — A seminar entitled "Deviance and Submission" was held by the Progressive Law Students Network at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on May 6 to discuss the role of the law in legitimising state power.

Dale Mills from the Legal Observers Project spoke about the abuse of police powers at the anti-World Trade Organisation demonstrations in Sydney last year. He argued that many progressive people incorrectly believe that the law can cure the ills of society without an alteration to the underlying problems of class inequality. While emphasising the importance of the Legal Observers Project in combating police abuses, Mills said that activist lawyers alone could not ensure that police serve ordinary people's interests.

Louise Boon-Kuo from the UTS Legal Centre spoke about surveillance technology and its role in assisting governments to monitor "suspect" people. Boon-Kuo spoke of "Guthrie cards", which are taken when infants are born and stored at hospitals. These cards contain samples of the infant's blood. This practice constitutes a potentially very serious abuse of privacy, as these cards be used to compile DNA databases on the population born here in the last 30 years. One Western Australian hospital, under pressure from police to give up some of the cards, destroyed their records so as to maintain patient confidentiality, Boon-Kuo revealed.

Jane Sanders, a specialist criminal lawyer who represents young offenders, spoke about the powers which allow police to give a "move on" order. It is an offence to fail to comply with such police order. Sanders explained that the "move on" power was originally designed to help police break-up pub brawls, however, the laws are often used against young people who are simply "hanging out" in public areas. Many young people, Sanders noted, hang out in public areas because they are too young to enter pubs.

As well, private security guards in shopping malls, where young people often congregate because they are well-lit and considered safe, abuse their power to eject young people. Sometimes, young people are "banned" from malls after a guard's request to leave escalates because a dispute erupts when young people feel they are being unfairly singled out, often because they were not spending money. There have even been cases of young people being banned from malls "for life". As many shopping malls are technically private premises, mall security guards have no accountability to the community.

The heavy-handedness of police and private security guards has led to some judges expressing disquiet at the readiness of police to arrest people in situations in which there seemed to be no need. Some law students at the seminar looked forward to future litigation against police in order to increase their accountability.

[Dale Mills is a volunteer with the Legal Observers Project and can be contacted on 0417 498 512.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.

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