You’re driving along Port Beach Road near Fremantle Port on a calm autumn evening to have a swim at the beach when sirens go off and police pull you over to begin searching your car.
You know you’ve done nothing wrong and there’s nothing about your behaviour that would elicit “reasonable suspicion” from a law enforcement officer.
But you’re told to get out while police go through your vehicle looking for methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, or other illegal drugs.
A police sniffer dog circles around you and an officer waves a drug detection wand over your body.
Seems far fetched? Well, it’s not.
It’s possible under the McGowan government’s proposed new laws to increase police stop-and-search powers to catch drug traffickers at specific locations at 22 port, road, rail and airport border entry points around the state.
At Port Hedland and Albany ports, Perth and Broome airports, Eyre Highway and Tanami Road border crossings, as well as the other designated locations, police will be able to stop and search any vehicles they want without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing if they have intelligence drugs are going to be imported through that area.
The government will use its majority in both houses of parliament to push through the legislative changes and entrench emergency powers given to police during the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Yet another police incursion’: KC
It’s raised concerns that extraordinary powers brought in during an extraordinary period are about to become permanent despite the emergency receding.
“It’s just another incursion of the police,” Tom Percy, KC, said.
“It slows down everything. It subjects people to searches which aren’t warranted in respect of which the police have no reasonable suspicion.”
Police requested the extra powers to try to replicate what happened during the pandemic when borders were closed.
During that time, methamphetamine detected in Perth sewerage fell by 51 per cent, by up to 73 per cent in Albany and by 65 per cent in Geraldton. Overall crime fell by over 40 per cent, the government said.
It’s not clear how much the drop in crime was because there was less meth in the community or because people were also in lockdown or COVID isolation and generally less active for periods during the pandemic.
“We want to make Western Australia the least attractive jurisdiction on the planet for these people to do their trade,” Police Minister Paul Papalia said of drug traffickers.
An ambition any government would want.
Is the government overreaching?
But there’s also the danger of overreach — creeping powers by a government with rare parliamentary muscle and no opposition large enough to stop it potentially going too far.
It’s not helped by the fact the list of locations may still grow.
In the future, police can apply to the attorney-general to have new areas added to the list if they believe they are an active entry point for drugs.
“The enhanced police powers this week in isolation might not appear to be of concern, but there is a pattern by the McGowan Government of incrementally increasing police powers that ought to be of strong concern,” Greens MP Brad Pettitt said.
“Of particular concern is that in many cases the guidelines that inform these powers are not public or open to scrutiny.”
“From COVID policing powers, to anti-consorting laws, through to the more recent PEP laws, police in WA have powers as we have never seen before, and many of these do not have the necessary checks and balances.”
Announcing the proposed changes this week, the premier stressed it was about saving lives and preventing drugs coming into WA through “evidence-based laws” already proven to work during COVID.
New laws ‘like biosecurity rules’
But he wasn’t leaving much room for dissent, labelling the current situation where your car can be searched for fruit under quarantine rules at the border, but not searched for drugs as “stupid”.
“We can currently search for a banana in a car without any suspicion on the border,” he told reporters.
“Yet we can’t search for cocaine heroin or meth. That’s stupid.
“So all we’re going to do is make sure that vehicles crossing the border, whichever way it is, can be searched, the same as you can search for a banana.
“Now if anyone can argue with the logic of that, that somehow a banana is more dangerous than a kilo of meth, please tell me.”
Obviously, a banana is not as dangerous as a kilo of meth. Even a ripe one.
But Mr Papalia and Police Commissioner Col Blanch have been trying to reassure the public nonetheless.
They say it won’t be a free for all and there will be checks to prevent misuse, including oversight by the Corruption and Crime Commission, with a singular focus on stopping drug traffickers.
So how will it work?
Firstly, these will not be permanent drug checkpoints at the border.
And these powers will not be available to police 24/7 to use any time they like.
Commissioner Blanch said it would be intelligence driven.
If police have information drugs or money will cross the border at a location, they must make an application for a superintendent to authorise the powers to be enacted in that area.
A superintendent can authorise the enhanced powers for 28 days and an inspector for 24 hours.
“This isn’t random,” Commissioner Blanch said.
“This isn’t just a police officer on the street making a decision. This is a considered effort that I will apply my guidelines to and a superintendent must approve.”
He said police may have an indication of the time, date and place drugs will be imported but not necessarily who or exactly when.
That’s why they wanted the power to search any, and all, vehicles with a lower threshold of evidence.
The government has given them that and they will now be allowed to search vehicles without reasonable suspicion. Anyone could be pulled over.
But for an individual, police will still be required to have a reasonable suspicion to search them. That can be reached if a drug wand or sniffer dog detects something suspicious.
Rapid response needed
Police want to be able to respond very quickly to new information.
“A person can fly into Western Australia with multiple kilograms of methamphetamine, be out of an airport in minutes. So we need to apply those resources rapidly, deploy them rapidly,” Commissioner Blanch said.
The 22 designated border search areas are mainly on public thoroughfares, such as rail sidings or specific parts of streets like Port Beach Road heading out of Fremantle Port and Karel Avenue alongside Jandakot Airport.
Mr Papalia pushed back on concerns civil liberties would be impinged, saying the search areas were constrained and defined in law, with maps of the areas included in the legislation.
“They enable a search to be conducted in the least disruptive fashion as possible,” he said.