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Oz anti-gang law hits email, maybe torrents too

Consorting offence now includes 'electronic communication'

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The Australian State of New South Wales has amended its Crimes Act with a new definition of ‘consorting’ that makes electronic communications evidence of participation in criminal groups.

The new law is a second attempt at making it hard for motorcycle gangs to do business. Such gangs are suspected of playing a significant role in Australia’s illegal drugs trade and have also been involved in drive by shootings and a firebombing in suburban Sydney. In 2009 two rival gangs brawled at Sydney Airport, resulting in the murder of one gang member who was bludgeoned to death with a bollard. Those incidents made motorcycle gangs a hot political issue and led to politicians of all persuasions playing the law and order card often and gleefully.

The State’s first attempt to stop motorcycle gangs foundered in the High Court (Australia’s ultimate court), which found a law aimed at preventing association between members exceeded the powers available to NSW’s Parliament and courts. That law was also criticised for sweeping definitions that some feared meant it could be applied to many sorts of association.

The new Crimes Amendment (Consorting and Organised Crime) Bill 2012 tries to improve on previous legislation by lowering the burden of proof required to show that someone participated in a criminal group. Defendants will now have to disprove that they “ … knew, or ought reasonably to have known …” that their activity “… contributed to the occurrence of a criminal activity.”

That activity could include email and mobile phone calls. Both were mentioned by NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell today at a news conference, where he said the new law “brings the offence of consorting up to date” by including those two media.

The wording of the Bill is, however, rather broad as it states:

“The new offence also makes it clear that consorting can occur in person or by any other means, including by electronic or other form of communication.”

We’ll wait for lawyers (all the good ones we know are out drinking expensive champagne at the time of writing) to tell us if that swarm you’re currently torrenting with can now be considered a criminal conspiracy given that you really should know that file sharing that new episode of The Simpsons is illegal and you’re doing it with other people who know the same thing, using electronic communication.

We'll update once we can get some lawyers on the phone. Watch this space. ®

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