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Commonwealth offences 

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A criminal offence can be under state law or commonwealth law. The Federal Government is responsible for creating the law about commonwealth offences.

What are some examples of offences under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act?

The Commonwealth Criminal Code Act covers offences such as:

  • Centrelink (social security) fraud
  • serious drug offences like importing illegal drugs
  • destroying or damaging commonwealth property
  • forging any commonwealth document (eg passports)
  • stealing or receiving stolen commonwealth property - this includes items in the post
  • offences committed by using the post - that is using the post to make a menace or to threaten someone or by sending offensive material to someone
  • offences committed by using the phone - things like making a threatening phone call or making a hoax threat or not using the emergency service number properly
  • offences committed by using the internet - for example, possessing controlling, supplying or obtaining child pornography
  • computer offences for example, interfering with or modifying or destroying computer equipment which is owned by a Commonwealth agency or department
  • terrorism offences - including acts of terrorism and membership or association with terrorist organisations
  • war crimes, crimes against humanity
  • money laundering
  • people smuggling, slavery, sexual servitude offences.

What are some other common commonwealth offences?

There are many commonwealth laws that control customs, quarantine, conduct on an aircraft, illegal fishing in Australian waters and immigration matters. For example:

  • Customs offences (can be under the Customs Act or Criminal Code) - these offences include importing, exporting or possession of imported narcotic drugs, smuggling offences, evading payment of customs duty and making an untrue customs declaration. If you have any concerns about travelling in and out of Australia or buying things from overseas on the internet, see the questions and answers further on.
  • Quarantine Act - these offences include importing any noxious insects, pests or diseased or prohibited goods, animals or plants or removing from Australia any restricted goods, animals or plants.
  • Civil Aviation Act - these laws say you cannot carry dangerous goods on an aircraft or interfere with crew or the aircraft.
  • Crimes (Aviation) Act - these laws provide that it is unlawful to take control of an aircraft or endanger or threaten to endanger the safety of aircraft or people in it. It is also an offence to assault a crew member or to be violent on board an aircraft. This Act also says it is an offence to destroy an aircraft with intent to kill or hijack an aircraft.
  • Fisheries Management Act - this Act provides an offence for illegal fishing in Australian waters, illegal fishing practices (such as driftnet fishing) and the detention of vessels and crew.
  • Migration Act - this Act covers offences like failing to comply with a visa condition, working without permission, making a false statement for migration purposes or harbouring illegal entrants.

If you are to be questioned about any of these offences you should get legal advice first. The laws covering commonwealth offences can give enforcement officers broad powers to search, detain and seize things. If you are found guilty of any of these offences, the penalties for breaking these laws can be severe, that is, heavy fines or you could go to jail.

I like to travel overseas, are the laws strict about what I can and can't bring into Australia?

If you intend to travel in and out of Australia, there are strict laws in Australia that cover what you must declare.

If you don't declare certain items like food, plants, animals, heritage items or money, when you leave Australia or when you arrive in Australia, you could be committing a criminal offence. The law is tough in this area and you cannot say you did not know that you couldn't bring something into the country or take something out of the country.

Customs, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs are the commonwealth government agencies that look after the international airports or any shipping ports.

To find out about what you can and can't do, you should get information from these agencies before you travel.

What do Customs, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship officers do?

When you leave or come into Australia, custom officers will check passports of everyone, identify any person that is a risk to security, search passengers bags and aircrafts /ships for illegal items, collect duty and tax on items like cigarettes and alcohol when it exceeds duty free allowance.

A quarantine officer will inspect all food and plant and animal material to make sure they are free of pests and diseases.

Immigration officers ensure that any person entering the country enters the country legally, that is, they have a valid visa and do not have fraudulent travel documents.

What are the common items I must declare when leaving Australia?

The common things that you must declare when you leave Australia are:

  • animal or plant material, for example birds, reptiles, plants or seeds
  • money - you must declare if you are taking out or bringing into Australia, more than $10,000 in cash
  • bearer negotiable instruments, these are travellers cheques, money orders or personal cheques, postal orders
  • firearms and ammunition
  • heritage items - for example art, archaeological items
  • defence and strategic goods - for example sensors and lasers, defence related goods.

If you carry illegal drugs such as heroin or cannabis or amphetamines and get arrested in Australia, serious penalties apply. If you get caught overseas with illegal drugs, some countries have as punishment the death penalty.

What are the things I must declare or are illegal when coming into Australia?

You can't bring the following things into Australia:

  • illicit (illegal) drugs - eg heroin, amphetamines, cannabis
  • animal, plant material, products of endangered species and items such as wooden souvenirs
  • pornography
  • weapons
  • counterfeit goods.

If you get caught with any illegal items or do not declare items such as animal or plant material, you will be charged with a criminal offence. If you do get detained at the airport you should ask the officers to speak with a lawyer first before participating in a record of interview.

When I buy things over the internet what should I be aware of?

When you buy things over the internet you should find out what country it comes from and if the item is illegal to bring into Australia.

Before you buy anything over the internet, you should contact Customs because you may be breaking the law if you have illegal items sent to you.

Just because the item is legal in the country that you are buying it from, does not make it legal in Australia. For example buying certain medicines which are legal to have here in Australia with a doctor's prescription may be illegal to import or buy over the net and bring into the country.

If you do get arrested for importing illegal items, you could face heavy penalties, such as a large fine or even jail.

What if I am a victim of a commonwealth offence?

Where you believe you have been a victim of a commonwealth offence contact the agency involved. Complaints can also be referred to the state police or the Australian Federal Police.

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Do I need legal advice?

You may need legal advice if you

  • are to be questioned about any commonwealth offence (see list above)
  • have been charged with a commonwealth offence, or any other offence, and are going to court
  • are detained at the airport. If this happens, get legal advice before agreeing to participate in a record of interview.
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Where can I get legal advice

Legal Aid Queensland may give legal advice about commonwealth offences.

If you have been charged with a serious offence or you have an urgent matter, we may suggest you apply for a grant of legal aid if you are eligible, or seek private representation, rather than waiting for a legal advice booking.

Legal Aid Queensland cannot provide you with a lawyer to attend a police interview.

The following organisations may also be able to provide you with legal advice.

Community legal centres may give free preliminary legal advice and information on some criminal law matters. Most CLCs do not provide legal representation. Check with your closest CLC whether they can assist with your matter.

Queensland Law Society can refer you to a specialist private solicitor who can provide advice and representation.

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Who else can help?

The following services may also be able to help you. They do not give legal advice.

Australian Customs Service manages the security and integrity of Australia's borders.

Australian Federal Police provides a range of investigation and operational support, security risk management, security vetting and information services to assist public. 

Department of Immigration and Citizenship is the commonwealth government department responsible for managing the entry and settlement of people into Australia.

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Disclaimer - Copyright © 1997 Legal Aid Queensland. This content is provided as an information source only and is not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should seek legal advice from a lawyer. Legal Aid Queensland believes the information is accurate as at 1 July 2007 but accepts no responsibility for any errors or omissions and denies all liability for any expenses, losses, damages and costs you might incur due to the information being inaccurate or incomplete in any way.

Last modified: 21 January 2014 3:28PM
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Commonwealth offences