Travelling Part 2 - criminal law implications on return from overseas

Travelling Part 2 - criminal law implications on return from overseas


Immigration clearance, Customs control and answering questions on the IPC

Anyone who’s travelled overseas before knows that on return to Australia, an Incoming Passenger card (also known as an IPC or PAX card) has to be filled in and presented at Immigration clearance. Penalties can apply if you refuse to complete the IPC. 

This is the time to declare anything you have in your hand or checked luggage that may prohibited. This includes things like food, wooden items, medicines or other drugs, any currency over the value of $10,000 AUD and other things. 

When in doubt – declare it! It’s always better to over-declare, than take the risk and be found to have something prohibited in your bags. The risks of doing that are hefty on-the-spot fines or prosecution and very serious penalties. 

Take this as an example – medication purchased overseas. You’ve had a bit of bad luck and taken sick while overseas. You’ve purchased medication at a pharmacy while away, or you’ve been provided with a prescription.  Not all medications that are available overseas are necessarily legal here. If you are unsure, declare it. The worst that will happen will be that the meds are confiscated – no harm, no foul. 

Quarantine risks 

One section of the IPC has questions that are concerned specifically with quarantine risks into Australia. Some items that are purchased overseas can have pests and diseases that are harmful to Australia’s natural environment and are biodiversity risks. There are a whole host of items that are not allowed into Australia and some that may need to be inspected before getting the green light. 

You can either declare the items or dispose of them in the bins available after disembarking the aircraft. 

If you fail to declare biosecurity risk items or make a false declaration on your IPC you risk being issued with an infringement notice or a civil penalty. Alternatively, you can be prosecuted and risk a criminal conviction. Maximum penalties are $420,000 fine or imprisonment for 10 years or both. 

Protected suspect

Customs officers are entitled to ask questions of any passenger who has disembarked an international flight or sea vessel for a variety of purposes. One of those is to determine whether a traveller is carrying items or goods which are prohibited or which attract a Customs duty or excise. Customs officers also have the power to ask questions related to carrying of money and items which are of quarantine concern. 

Customs officers have the ability to ask quite extensive questions under this power. They can ask about where you have been, what’s in your bags and what you know about their contents. They can ask who packed the bags, where you commenced your trip, about certain goods in your luggage, where you got them from, what you paid for it. It is compulsory to answer these questions – and if your refuse, it is an offence. The maximum penalty is 300 penalty units (currently $6,300).

Reasonable belief that an offence has been committed

If the Customs Officer develops a reasonable belief that an offence has been committed by the person they are speaking to, a caution must be given to that person. The Customs officer must do this as soon as they develop that reasonable belief. 

Once the reasonable belief has been formed by the officer, a caution must be given to the person they are questioning. This is because from that moment onwards, the person is a “protected suspect”. A protected suspect is a person who is in the company of an investigating official and being questioned but has not yet been arrested for an offence. One or more of the following conditions must also be present:

  • the official believes that there is sufficient evidence to establish that the person has committed an offence;

  • the official would not let the person leave if the person wanted to;

  • the official has told the person of the reasonable grounds for believing that the person would not be allowed to leave if they wanted to.

 The caution that must be given is:

You do not have to say or do anything but anything you do say or do may be used in evidence. 

From that point onwards, there is no obligation to answer any questions asked of you by Customs officers. The caution and any questions asked by officials and any answers given must be tape recorded by officials. Read more here about participating in interviews with police – the same premise applies for interviews or questions with Customs officials. 

Missed Part 1? Read on: What to be aware of when travelling overseas

Got questions? Give us a call on 02 8590 6084

This information is provided as a general guide only and does not constitute legal advice.

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