Daily Archives: May 17, 2015

Sting Operations: Police Putting Innocent Lives in Danger

Covert operations, commonly known as ‘sting’ operations, are sometimes used by police and other law enforcement agencies to obtain evidence of criminal activity.

The words ‘covert operation’ may conjure up images of police going undercover and posing as civilians in the hopes of catching murderers and drug king-pins.

But did you know that police also recruit members of the public to assist with sting operations – even with large-scale, international drug importation cases?

This might sound surprising given the obvious dangers involved – and, indeed, cases over the years illustrate the potential consequences of enlisting the help of civilians in stings.

So when can police recruit civilians for stings, and what are the risks?

Australian Federal Police (AFP) Drug Sting Goes Wrong

Back in 2002, an innocent furniture importer found himself embroiled in an AFP drug sting which went dangerously wrong.

The man, who uses the pseudonym ‘John Mansfield,’ was based in the Northern Territory in 2002 when he was approached by drug smugglers wanting to use his shipping containers to import the drug precursor ‘ephedrine’ from Indonesia into Australia.

Mansfield decided to report the matter to Northern Territory Police, who then referred it to the AFP.

Shortly thereafter, Mansfield was approached by the AFP who asked whether he would comply with the drug smugglers’ request in order to help them to dismantle an international drug-trafficking ring.

The operation required Mansfield to attend secret meetings with AFP officers in the dead of the night, get ‘wired up,’ and eventually travel to Indonesia with a million dollars worth of illegal drugs in his possession and liaise with drug traffickers.

Despite the obvious risks involved, he initially trusted the AFP to keep him safe in the same way that they would protect their own ranks.

After he arrived in Indonesia, Mr ‘Mansfield’ took up residence in an apartment, where the drugs were arranged to be delivered to him by an ‘erratic criminal figure,’ who was high on drugs and paranoid. The drugs were due to be shipped back to Australia under the supervision of an AFP officer, but that officer ended up bailing at the last minute, leaving Mansfield alone in a foreign country with copious amounts of illegal drugs and at the mercy of extremely dangerous individuals.

Mansfield says that the AFP treated him ‘like a throw-away.’

While he eventually managed to return to Australia, Mansfield suffered immensely as a result of his involvement in the operation. His identity was revealed in court proceedings – a case which ended up with the accused being found ‘not guilty’. Following the trial, Mansfield found himself ‘publically outed’ as a police informant and received threats from criminal figures. Fearing retribution, he was forced to move interstate.

Despite Mansfield’s life-changing ordeal, and the fact that he did not receive any training or debriefing, the AFP claimed that the risk to him was ‘assessed and considered to be low.’

Mansfield maintains that he was never offered an apology or any thanks for his efforts in the operation.

NSW Police Accused of Using Kids in Stings

While using an adult in a dangerous sting operation is questionable enough, using young kids in stings would be unthinkable – right?

Just last year, former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell suggested that kids may be used by police in undercover operations to catch shop owners alleged to have sold alcohol to minors.

In the midst of the state government’s crackdown on alcohol-fuelled violence, the ex-Premier revealed a 16-point plan which included granting police powers to conduct covert operations ‘involving minors or young-looking adults.’

The NSW Police Force refused to deny whether they used children in covert police operations after a media organisation made a request under freedom of information laws to access documents relating to controlled operations.

Police refused the request on ‘public policy’ grounds, claiming that ‘confirming or denying the existence of any such documents would be against the public interest’ as it could identify informants. The decision was heavily criticised by Greens NSW Spokesperson for Police David Shoebridge, who argued that there was a ‘strong public interest’ in revealing whether police are using kids in sting operations.

The obvious risk is that children will be exposed to dangerous situations by reckless police intent on securing an arrest at all costs.

What Does the Law Say About Using Civilians in Sting Operations?

Given the serious dangers involved, one may wonder what protections are granted to civilians who are used by police in sting operations.

In New South Wales, the use of civilians in such operations is covered by the Law Enforcement (Controlled Operations) Act 1997.

Under section 7 of that Act, civilians must not be authorised to participate in controlled operations unless the CEO of the Police Force or relevant body is satisfied that it is ‘wholly impractical’ for a law enforcement officer to participate in the operation, and that it is ‘wholly impracticable’ for the civilian participant to participate in the controlled operation without engaging in that activity.

Incredibly, if a civilian sting operation goes wrong, law enforcement officers such as police are immune from criminal and civil prosecution under the Act. This means that members of the public who suffer injury in the course of the sting are unable to sue authorities – nor can the authorities be criminally prosecuted.

The laws are largely the same in relation to stings authorised by Federal law enforcement agencies.

National guidelines on Commonwealth controlled operations state that civilians may only be used in stings where their role ‘could not adequately be performed by a law enforcement officer’ – for instance, where the civilian is known to the suspect, or where they have a unique skill or knowledge.

The Problems With Sting Operations

The Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service in the 1990’s identified several areas of concern surrounding sting operations.

In particular, the Commission raised concerns about the extent to which law enforcement agencies escape liability after they have clearly committed criminal offences in the context of a sting.

As detailed in the Commission’s Final Report:

‘it is undesirable for the courts to be placed in a position where an expectation arises that they will… turn a blind eye to this form of conduct or… be given a delegated responsibility to ‘excuse’ criminal conduct.’

But far from recommending that these agencies be held accountable under criminal or civil law, the Commission simply recommended the enactment of legislation which would ‘introduce a greater degree of regularity and certainty into undercover operations.’

A number of administrative measures were adopted following this recommendation, including the requirement that sting operations must be documented and that approval must be sought before they are commenced. As long as these guidelines are followed, the Commission legitimised the immunity of law enforcement officers from both civil and criminal liability.

But despite the basic nature of the requirements, there are concerns that they are being breached without consequences. A report released in 2012 by the NSW Police Force suggests that there are ‘significant delays’ with police officers providing reports on undercover operations to the Police Commissioner and NSW Ombudsman; which indicates that they are being prepared after the operation has occurred, rather than before as required. This supports the contention that there is a ‘complete absence of oversight’ when it comes to police sting operations.

The Growing Use of E-Cigarettes in NSW

Sales of e-cigarettes have soared in recent years, mainly at the expense of more traditional cigarettes. But these new products are not just giving cigarette companies a run for their money – part of their market is cannabis users who have been taking advantage of this new technology.

Across the world, both medicinal and recreational cannabis users have gravitated toward the e-cigarette.

Users can take advantage of e-cigarettes to ‘vape’ cannabis resin in public without fear that the distinctive cannabis odour will give them away. This is because cannabis in wax or resin form does not emit the same smell as smoking buds and leaves does, allowing users to brazenly ‘vape’ in public.

All that a person would need to do is replace the e-liquid (typically a mixture of nicotine, flavourings and other chemicals) with cannabis oil.

Even in US states like Colorado where it is already legal to purchase and smoke marijuana, some prefer the convenience and feeling of e-cigarettes. They say the high is more intense, and have taken advantage of the fact that it allows users to circumvent limits on the amount of cannabis that one person can buy.

The legal limit is a quarter of an ounce for fresh cannabis – but cannabis oil is sold in cartridges so strong they it can last for weeks at a time.

e-joints?

What about those who might enjoy the sensation of smoking cannabis, without the high?

Well, there has been a product invented for this, too.

Along with the more generic flavours of vaping liquid, such as cherry or watermelon, Dutch company E-Njoint BV has now introduced the electronic joint. They claim that their product is completely legal and safe and – and that it won’t actually get you high.

The e-joint has a small picture of a cannabis leaf that lights up when a user draws on the e-cigarette.

The company website describes the product as allowing people to enjoy “a variety of products and flavours, relaxing, while expressing themselves in a unique way”.

It is true that the product does not contain THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. It has the same flavour, but will not have the same effects as smoking cannabis would have.

That being the case, some might wonder why anyone would want to buy it at all!

But orders of the product are said to be increasing, perhaps due to its novelty.

What is the law in Australia on e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes have been banned in Western Australia since 2014, and while they remain legal in other states, some users have been adapting the devices for illegal purposes.

In NSW, e-cigarettes are not currently covered by tobacco legislation, although selling the liquid nicotine inserts is illegal. Despite this, sales of e-cigarettes remains lawful, and it is not an offence to possess the nicotine inserts, as long as you’re not selling them.

However this may not be the case for long, with Premier Mike Baird recently announcing plans to crack down on e-cigarettes.

What are the penalties for vaping cannabis in NSW?

There is no specific offence of vaping cannabis. Instead, it would fall under the provisions of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985. Under this Act, possession of cannabis – whether it is the oil, resin or leaf – is a criminal offence in NSW.

The penalties for possession are a maximum two years in prison or a $2,200 fine.

In order to prove this offence, the prosecution must establish beyond reasonable doubt that you:

  • Had the cannabis in your possession; and
  • Knew, or should have reasonably known, that it was there.

If you are facing charges or have concerns, it may be wise to get advice from a good drug lawyer. An experienced lawyer may be able to get your drug charge dropped or thrown out of court, or may be able to help you to avoid a criminal record even if you wish to plead guilty.