A 53-year-old Sydney man has been awarded $112,387.67 in damages after it was ruled that he was wrongfully submitted to an “invasive” strip search by NSW Police officers.
In a judgment made last year, NSW District Court judge Phillip Taylor ruled that officers made an unlawful arrest and that an officer directed that a strip search be conducted the man seemingly solely as a response to his “lack of submission” at the scene of his arrest.
Steven Attalla was sitting on a wall using his phone in Darlinghurst when he was approached by three police officers at 3:30am in the morning on March 24, 2015. Asked what he was doing, Attalla told police that he had been drinking in Kings Cross and was heading back to his home in The Rocks, having just stopped for a rest. In a statement, Senior Constable Courtney Cruickshank said that this made her suspicious, as this would mean he had been walking in the wrong direction.
Attalla told the officers that he had done nothing wrong and was going to contact his lawyer, at which point Cruikshank told Attalla that she believed him to be in possession of illegal substances and that he was about to be searched. The officers claimed that Attalla resisted the search, prompting the officers to place him in a wrist lock before handcuffing and searching him, finding no drugs.
Attalla was then taken back to the station, where he was strip-searched by two male officers under the direction of Cruikshank, with the judge describing Attalla has having been “forced to undertake the degrading experience of removing his pants and underwear, displaying his genitals, lifting up his genitals to display that area of his body behind them, and squat in that state of nakedness“. At no point in the search did officers find any illegal substances on Attalla.
The court found that Cruickshank had told Attalla that if he “just did what [the police] asked [him] to do … this could have all been avoided” and further that she had submitted Attalla to the strip search without any knowledge of the prior search he had already undergone, indicating that “at least by that stage and perhaps from much earlier, Officer Cruickshank no longer suspected that Mr Attalla possessed prohibited drugs.”
Attalla was awarded damages for wrongful arrest, assault, and battery, stemming from both the arrest and the strip search, with a further $35,000 in exemplary damages for what the judge called “an almost reckless indifference” by the officers to the safeguards in place on their search powers.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the wrongful search has since been used in an internal NSW Police report to “illustrate the organisational risk posed by unlawful strip-searches“. What a fun way for the police to say that it’s bad because of what it does to them, not because of what it does to the victim of the unlawful search.
Another internal report seen by the Sydney Morning Herald indicated that officers were routinely breaching the strip search laws due to confusion around what constitutes a strip search.