Are customs officers allowed to conduct random searches on airline passengers?

by The FindLaw Team

Australians are a well travelled bunch and can be found in almost all points of the globe. Being such an adventurous populous, many readers will have also had the distinction of interacting with customs if they have returned from an overseas destination. When dealing with passengers, there are number of actions that a customs officer can undertake when searching passengers, and the powers can be found in the Customs Act 1901 (Cth)(the Act).  

What types of searches can be conducted on passengers?

Under the provisions of the Act, customs officers have the power to search every part of any ship, aircraft or installation, and they can open any package, locker, or place. Customs officers can even examine goods without any reason to suspect the person is carrying any illegal drugs.

In addition to searching the luggage of a person, customs officers may also conduct a personal search that fall into two categories; frisk and external searches.

Frisk searches are conducted when a customs officer quickly feels the outer garments of a passenger. Meanwhile, an external search is one involving a search of a person’s body, and any other item of clothing. However, external searches are not cavity searches.

In the event that a person refuses either a frisk or external search, an application may be made either from a customs or police officer to an authorised customs officer or magistrate for an order for an external search to be conducted.

Detaining and searching a passenger

When a customs or police officer suspects on reasonable grounds that a person may be bringing into Australia a prohibited item, that person may be detained and searched. Searches must be conducted by an officer that is the same gender as the person being detained, and must be conducted as soon as practicable. Additionally, the appropriate privacy arrangements must be made when conducting a search.

What happens if a person is suspected to have concealed something internally?

If it is reasonably suspected that a person is internally concealing a suspicious item, they may be detained by a customs or police officer. Either the chief executive officer of customs or a police officer will then be required to make a request for a detention order of up to 48 hours from a judge or magistrate. The 48 hour detention period can be extended if required.

Circumstances where a person does not consent to having an internal search conducted, the customs or police officer must obtain an order from a judge, which would allow a medical practitioner to undertake a search.        


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