Criminal Law News & Current Affairs

By Charlene Chalker-Harris


Anonymous Tips

The community has long been encouraged to report suspicious activity to police.  The ‘Dob in a Dealer’ campaign is one of the more recent examples of this kind of community engagement.  Through this campaign, the Australian Federal Police has raised awareness that drug dealing and drug manufacturing often happens in plain sight, educating the community of the types of things people should be on the lookout for.  The community is encouraged to report any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers by calling an anonymous hotline.

Requests for the public’s help in identifying offenders and witnesses are also on the rise, particularly through the use of social media.  Increasingly we see CCTV footage of offences, face-fits and descriptions of suspects accompanied by posts urging the public to contact police with any information they have that might assist.  And to great effect.  These social media posts are often followed by updates advising that a suspect has been identified or that a witness has been located.

In an appropriate precaution, these social media posts are accompanied by a reminder not to provide information by commenting on the post directly where every person following the post can see it, but to instead contact police to retain anonymity.  But how do you know your details will really be kept anonymous?

In a recent case in the ACT, a woman called police to inform them that a man was growing cannabis at his house.  That man was her brother.  The woman initially called Crime Stoppers, and when no action was taken she called the local police station twice to provide further information and to ask that they do something about it.  On each occasion she articulated her concerns that she did not want her brother to know it was her that had called, and on each occasion she was assured her identity would remain anonymous.

However, her name was printed in court documents filed by the Crown and police later revealed her identity in open court.  Her significant role in the investigation, previously undisclosed, eventually came to light when she gave evidence of her own involvement in the case.

After portraying in the police brief of evidence that a tip had been received from an anonymous caller, the woman’s name first appeared in a list of Crown witnesses when the matter was getting ready to proceed to trial in the ACT Supreme Court.  It was at this point that suspicions were raised as to the true identity of the caller.  However, it was not until the pre-trial hearing last Tuesday that the police officer leading the investigation formally revealed the woman’s identity in his evidence, acknowledging that police had in fact known who the ‘anonymous’ caller had been all along.

Armed with the newfound knowledge that the woman was, in fact, the man’s sister, the woman was called by the Defence to give evidence.  And what she said shocked the courtroom.  She told the Court she had been directed by a police officer to attend her brother’s residence to confirm whether there were still cannabis plants there.  The woman said the officer advised that she would call her once she was at the residence, that she would be asked whether the cannabis plants were still there and that she was simply to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Remarkably, when she told police that she was not sure it would be worth coming over as there were not as many plants as she had initially thought, she was told to get out of the house straight away because police were already on their way.  This woman was not formally engaged as a civilian informant nor was she afforded any protections.

Ordinarily, police must apply for a written warrant – a safeguard that affords people the protection from police coming into their house without a legal basis.  When there is not enough time to obtain a written warrant, the warrant can instead be applied for over the telephone.  In either case, the Court is presented with relevant information to then exercise discretion whether or not to issue a warrant.  This protection is afforded to the community to safeguard all of us from an abuse of power by the police and other authorities.  It is an integral part of the criminal justice system, and it is a discretionary power given to the Courts for a reason.

Only in cases of genuine emergency can police search premises without a warrant, for example in serious cases where evidence is likely to be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained.  In this case, police said their emergency powers were enlivened due to concerns that the evidence was being removed or destroyed and that they would not have time to first obtain a warrant, even though they conceded that telephone warrants could be obtained as quickly as within an hour.  Officers gave evidence that the man’s sister had said “I think he’s selling them”.  However, when the woman was called to give evidence she denied ever telling police that her brother was selling the cannabis plants.  Police also asserted suspicions that the man’s former partner was involved, however the man’s sister denied ever suggesting this.

It seems there was never any emergency justifying the search of the premises without a warrant and there was plenty of time for the police to have gone through the proper channels and obtained a warrant had they been bothered to do so.  Leaving aside the issue of the unlawful search, the fact police would then try and cover it up by describing the caller as anonymous, thereby disadvantaging the Defence by not properly disclosing relevant information, and subsequently expose the woman who believed she would remain anonymous, is disgusting.

Having heard the extraordinary account of the woman’s involvement in the police investigation and her damning evidence that called into question whether there had, in fact, ever been information that the man was out selling plants or that his ex-partner might assist in destroying or concealing evidence, the Crown conceded that the search was unlawful and has since abandoned the prosecution of this matter.

This was a harrowing experience for all involved; not only for the man whose rights were infringed when police conducted an illegal raid of his house, but for his sister whose identity was released despite multiple assurances from police that she would remain anonymous.

The woman told the Court that she called police because she wanted her brother to get help and rehabilitation.   She never expected that he would be charged with an offence so serious it carried a maximum sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment.  She certainly never expected her identity would be revealed.

The most astounding part of this matter is that the police abused their power in this case and used a woman who thought she was doing her civic duty (and assisting her brother) as their pawn in doing so.

If you are providing an anonymous tip you should never be asked to provide your personal details.  You can submit a report online through Crime Stoppers or call their anonymous hotline without ever being asked for your name or contact details.  If, for some reason, you are asked for your personal details, do not feel obliged to provide this information as a truly anonymous tip is exactly that – anonymous.

To read more about the case, read The Canberra Times article: