Police strip searched 16-year-old girl at Splendour music festival, inquiry hears

Michael McGowan
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

A 16-year-old girl was left fearful and in tears after she was forced to strip naked in front of police at a music festival last year.

On Monday the New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission opened a four-day inquiry into the allegedly unlawful strip search of the girl at the 2018 Splendour in the Grass festival near Byron Bay.

The inquiry heard the girl – whose name has been suppressed – was one of six children who were strip-searched at the event without a parent or guardian present, a breach of police search powers.

It is alleged police asked the girl her age and took her identification but did not call her parents or anyone else capable of caring for her, a breach of their search powers. After a false positive indication by a sniffer dog, the girl was taken by police to a tent inside the festival grounds and told to remove her clothing.

Related: 'Extraordinary rise' in strip-searches by NSW police fuelled by use of sniffer dogs

“At that point I realised I was going to have to get naked in front of this police officer,” the girl said in a statement read out by counsel assisting the commissioner, Peggy Dwyer.

“I could not believe this was happening to me; I could not stop crying; I was completely humiliated. A strip search is by necessity a grave intrusion of a citizen’s privacy and dignity.”

In NSW, police are only permitted to carry out field strip searches if the urgency and seriousness of the situation requires it. In the case of minors a parent or guardian must be present unless an immediate search is deemed necessary to protect the person or prevent evidence being destroyed.

The commission heard evidence that drugs were found in less than 10% of the 143 strip searches carried out at the festival.

In her opening address to the inquiry, Dwyer said that absent a legal justification for a strip search “it would constitute an assault”.

“And I anticipate that the commission will hear that it is capable of causing great distress and lasting harm,” she said.

In her statement, the girl said it was “distressing and upsetting” to think about the incident and that it had made her feel as though she can no longer trust police.

“I was absolutely shocked that the police would do this to me,” she said in her statement.

“Every time I saw a police officer at the festival I started to feel anxious. My whole body would clench up and I would get clammy and hot. I was scared to make eye contact with them in case it happened again. Each time I walked into the festival I would feel anxious.”