Watchdog cautions Customs on ‘intrusive’ searches

By Angela Dorizas

The Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, has received complaints from travellers about the "unfair and unnecessarily intrusive" behaviour of Customs officers.

Mr Asher today warned that coercive powers of Customs officers must be lawful and reasonable.

“These coercive powers allow the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to question international travellers, search baggage, copy documents and retain items for further examination,” Mr Asher said in a statement.

“I would caution that such powers require strong checks and balances to ensure a proper regard for the individual’s circumstances.”

Customs officers are entitled to examine items in luggage, inlcuding diaries and notebooks, cameras, laptops and electronic storage devices. Documents may also be downloaded or copied.

Mr Asher said he had received complaints from travellers about the behaviour of Customs officers, with some questioning if officers had acted within their powers.

He said some travellers felt their privacy had been invaded through "intrusive" searches.

The Ombudsman’s report included a case study of a man being questioned about his personal life, including marital status and living arrangements, which had no relation to the ‘carriage of prohibited goods’.

The Ombudsman recommended improvements in a number of areas, including the relevance of questions asked and documents copied; the timeliness of the return of personal possessions; record keeping and transparency of administration; and the provision of information to the public on passenger processing.

Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency took seriously the obligations and responsibilities in the exercive of coercive powers.

"We also understand the seriousness of the consequences if we were found to be deficient in this exercise," the spokesperson said.

"It is therefore pleasing that the Ombudsman has found our exercise of these powers is generally sound."
Customs and Border Protection accetpted nine of the ten recommendations identified by the Ombudsman.

"Customs and Border Protection did not accept the recommendation to inform travellers of the reasons for copying documents as this could jeopardise law enforcement or national security work," the spokesperson said.

"Customs and Border Protection has developed a strategy to implement the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s recommendations.  It is anticipated that all accepted recommendations will be implemented by 30 June 2011."

Download the report: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service – Administration of coercive powers in passenger processing 15/2010 [PDF]

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