RLC in the Media: Police ease up on COVID-19 fines as pandemic progresses

Police enforcement of the lockdown has plummeted in line with the dwindling number of new coronavirus cases, but there are concerns some communities are taking an unfair burden.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons and Nigel Gladstone report for The Sydney Morning Herald

A Sun-Herald analysis of NSW Police media releases shows the number of fines or charges issued under the public health order fell from at least 116 on Easter Saturday to an average of five a day last week. On Saturday, NSW Health reported five new cases of COVID-19, down from 199 on March 26.

A spokesperson for NSW Police declined to explain whether the number of fines and charges had fallen because the police were focusing on other operations now that the pandemic threat had abated or because members of the public were getting better at following lockdown restrictions.

The public health order, which took effect on March 17, and expires at the end of June, grants police the power to fine or charge people for being out of their home without a reasonable excuse.

There has been little correlation between where fines are issued and where cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.

Samantha Lee, police accountability solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre, said lower socioeconomic areas and regional towns seem to be bearing the brunt.

She was concerned the public health orders were being used to initiate stop and search proceedings against people who were already vulnerable, including those who are Indigenous, young or poor. She noted that the $1000 cost of the fine was three times the base weekly amount of JobSeeker and double the amount of many speeding fines.

“These powers have been implemented to prevent the spread of a disease, not to control or prevent criminal behaviour,” Ms Lee said.

The Sun-Herald’s analysis also suggests a wide discrepancy between cases where police give multiple warnings before issuing a fine and cases where people are given no warning.

A NSW Police spokesperson confirmed officers have been issued with comprehensive state-wide guidance to ensure they use discretion appropriately but would not provide details.

Read the full article here (The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 2020)