“Protective custody” is a police power in the Northern Territory, which enables police to apprehend a person who is intoxicated, and at risk of committing an offence, causing harm to themselves or another person. The period of apprehension only lasts until the person is no longer intoxicated, and while in remote areas this means the person is held in a police cell, police may also take the person to a ‘sobering up shelter’ for the duration of the protective custody. Ordinary police investigation and questioning is not permitted during a period of protective custody and evidence obtained during such time is inadmissible.
Abolishing the BDR appeared to be the top priority for the Country Liberals party and it featured in their pre-election platform as their activity for ‘Day 1’ if they won the election. On 29 August 2012, the newly-elected Chief Minister, Terry Mills, signed an instrument which removed the conditions requiring the scanning of photo identification prior to the purchase of alcohol in the NT. The Chief Minister also directed the Police Commissioner make licensees immune from prosecution if they fail to scan identification. It is anticipated that BDR provisions will be eventually repealed from the Liquor Act. At the time the BDR was abolished, around 2 600 persons were listed in the register.
The BDR has been abolished for over six weeks and anecdotal evidence has so far indicated that violence and problem drinking has risen since its abolition. These observations are also made by licensees, who have reported a rise in thefts and assaults while they are on duty. The Opposition have criticised the decision to scrap the BDR without an alternative measure. The Commonwealth government also called on the new NT government to outline its strategy against alcohol, given that the Commonwealth contributed $1.5 million towards funding the ID scanners used by licensees.
The CLP have defended their decision on the basis that the register failed to deter problem drinkers, who found a way to purchase alcohol despite being on the register. They have outlined their alternate and also controversial policy of mandatory rehabilitation of ‘habitual drunks’, which is yet to be implemented.
SUE ERICKSON is an Assistant Parliamentary Counsel in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, NT.