Ahead on penalties: Victoria leads nation on COVID-19 lockdown fines

By Tammy Mills
Published by The Age on 27 May 2020

Victorians have been fined for breaking coronavirus rules at almost triple the rate of any other state or territory, with almost 6000 people each receiving a $1652 penalty since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed.

Information obtained by The Age shows the number of fines in Victoria is nearly three times the number issued in Queensland and four times greater than in NSW – a state with more coronavirus cases and deaths than its southern counterpart.

Victoria Police has issued 5957 fines for restriction breaches such as unnecessary travel, equating to a conservative estimate of more than $8 million in penalties.

Civil rights lawyers say the disparity in numbers could mean Victoria has been overpoliced during the lockdown period.

However, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said the higher numbers were probably due to the fact Victoria had taken a more hardline approach to enforcement than other states.

The closest state to Victoria in terms of penalty numbers is Queensland, where 2069 fines have been handed out, followed by NSW with 1290. Penalty levels in other states are also lower: individuals have been fined $1334 in Queensland and $1000 in NSW for breaching restrictions.

South Australia has issued 271 infringement notices and the Northern Territory 60, while there have been 107 in Western Australia and none in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania.

Victoria Police has the largest dedicated coronavirus taskforce in the country, with 500 officers enforcing pandemic regulations.

"It is arguable ... that the restrictions in Victoria are some of the more stringent and more constraining than other states," Mr Patton told a Law Week panel last week.

"We have given out thousands and thousands of warnings as well, but it is a significant number of infringements.

"Having said that, there are a range of checks and balances in place."

About 337 of Victoria's fines have been withdrawn and there have been more than 400 requests for reviews. Just over 2 per cent of the $1652 fines have been paid.

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton said the police response had improved since the heavy-handed enforcement seen when fines began to be issued at the end of March.

Police came under fire for fining a learner driver and a couple who posted old travel pictures on social media.

"It did make people lose a bit of confidence in the way in which fines were being issued ... to their credit [Victoria Police] have revised the way they were applying scrutiny to the issue of those fines," Ms Hilton said.

She called for more information to be released, including a breakdown of where fines had been issued, to show whether vulnerable communities were over-represented.

An analysis of NSW figures by the Saturday Paper reported fines were clustered in Sydney’s western suburbs, where there is a significant migrant population, and in regional areas with limited correlation to infection rates.

"You need more safeguards than you might usually have to make sure there is no inadvertent overexercise of those powers and also to make sure you are still maintaining community trust and confidence," Ms Hilton said.

"The enforcement system has been necessary in making sure people understand the gravity of the situation, but you don’t want to criminalise a health pandemic either."

The Police Accountability Project's Anthony Kelly said there were concerns Victorian officers had been overzealous, particularly against lower-socioeconomic communities.

"Other police forces deliberately took a more educative and informative approach, so it deserves scrutiny to see which approach is more impactful to meet our public health objectives," he said.

Police Association of Victoria boss Wayne Gatt said the fact there was sufficient control of the pandemic showed the approach was right.

"If you put police on the beat and ask them to focus on an issue, they will do their job," Mr Gatt said. "My members have taken their responsibility seriously and with a sense of duty that is commendable, at significant risk of safety to themselves."

Police Minister Lisa Neville said the minority of Victorians who do not follow the pandemic directions pose a risk to the broader public.

"Police have responded accordingly," Ms Neville said. "I fully support the work Victoria Police has done during this pandemic – it has undoubtedly saved Victorian lives and I thank them for that."

Victoria Police, which has the most officers of any force, has conducted 54,692 spot checks during the pandemic.

The police assistance line has received almost 70,000 calls from the public, with more than 25,000 of those about illegal gatherings and isolation breaches.

NSW Police – which does not have a dedicated taskforce – did not keep spot-check data, according to a spokeswoman.

However, it received 18,000 pandemic-related calls through Crime Stoppers.

Queensland, the first state to close its borders, has a COVID-19 taskforce. Since March 27 more than 200,000 cars have been stopped at the border and almost 5500 people on quarantine orders have been checked.

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