The world has changed in the past month, and the law has followed along.
States and territories have rushed to enact new regulations banning Australians from everyday activities, all in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) through the community.
In NSW, leaving the house without a valid excuse is now unlawful. Unless you can claim one of sixteen reasonable excuses laid out by the state’s new public health order, you could face a Penalty Infringement Notice (PIN), a hefty fine, jail time, or both.
It’s all a bit much, and if this week is anything to go by, there’s still a bit of confusion. But Sherleen Chand, a Senior Associate at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, told PEDESTRIAN.TV there are a few key things to remember to avoid fines for flouting the new rules.
What’s the easiest way to dodge a PIN?
The first tip is perhaps the most obvious: learn what is and isn’t permitted, and comply with those guidelines as best you can.
“What we would recommend is that people do actually follow the orders that have been placed, not only for themselves, but for the safety of others,” Chand said. After all, if the goal of the rules is to slow the spread of COVID-19, avoiding time in public will do the trick.
Claiming ignorance of the new abnormal won’t help. “When you’re oblivious to the law, that really is no reasonable defense to anyone,” Chand said. “It becomes an individual’s responsibility.”
I’ve been stopped by an officer, but I’ve done nothing wrong. What now?
Under the public health order, NSW Police have been empowered to deliver on-the-spot PINs to anyone violating the guidelines. NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller says officers have been directed to use their discretion while handing them out, providing some leeway to prove you’re outside for a valid reason.
While not strictly necessary, carrying a shopping list when you head to the shops, or wearing athletic gear while exercising outside, will help if you’re stopped by a police officer.
“It would would certainly assist, and limit any further conversations with the officers rather than standing there, or being stopped by officers and having to explain and talk,” Chand said.
Heading to the pharmacy?
“If you’ve got a prescription, it’d be great if you do carry it, just so that it limits any further interaction with police,” she added.
You get the idea.
I’ve received a PIN. Can I challenge it?
PINs act like speeding tickets, Chand says, and acknowledging your breach then-and-there will result in a financial penalty — but no mark on your criminal record.
Chand said that if you want to challenge a PIN, you can “speak to criminal lawyers, such as ourselves, and we would be able to go through the questions and see if they have any legal defense available to them.”
If your counsel believes there’s merit to your case, you can elect to dispute it in court. If you win your case, you will be acquitted, meaning you won’t have to pay up or face further penalties.
But, if you lose the case, “it’s at that point where it becomes a criminal record.”
“It’s very important if a person feels they feel they shouldn’t be receiving that infringement notice, or if they have received an infringement notice, then speak to a lawyer,” she added.
“Then we can discuss what options do they have at that stage.”
I’m picking up what you’re putting down, but… What if I try coughing on an officer? Would that help?
NSW Police have made several allegations in recent days of people coughing on police officers and insinuating they’re infected with COVID-19. While flouting the new guidelines won’t necessarily land you a criminal record, Chand says coughing on cops could make your situation much, much worse.
“So people joke by doing that, but that actually amounts to a criminal offense in itself, which forms part of intimidation,” Chand said.
“Whether or not they intentionally did that, or recklessly deal did that, the police then can actually lay a criminal charge, of stalking or intimidating, or common assault, which is obviously a criminal criminal charge and goes straight to court.”
Don’t do it.
How long will it be until I don’t have to worry about all of this?
In NSW, the lockdown restrictions are set to expire on June 30. That’s a long time. Earlier this week, Commissioner Fuller said he “certainly won’t be seeking an extension, people will have gotten the message by then, hopefully.”
While the laws are an attempt to curtail COVID-19’s transmission through the community, they do come at a price.
In addition to the economic havoc caused by lockdown measures nationwide, Chand warns that some of these emergency measures are “rights-eroding” by definition and “give unprecedented powers to law enforcement and other government agencies.”
We’ve already seen NSW Police officers drive patrol cars through public parks to alert sunbathers of the fact they were, technically, violating the law.
Officers have handed out PINs to people who were simply driving around without an excuse, and to one Newcastle man who ignored warnings to stay inside and decided to eat a kebab on a bench instead.
While Chand referred specifically to the situation in NSW, the thrust of her advice applies across the country: Brush up on your local guidelines. If you’re heading outside, make sure you can prove you’re doing so for a valid reason. Be prepared to face questioning about it, no matter how much it sucks.
And please, for the love of God, don’t cough on cops.