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Everything You Need To Know About Strip Searching Laws

A judge has just awarded a Sydney man more than $112,000 after finding he was strip searched illegally by police -- but what exactly constitutes an illegal strip search?

Steven Attalla, 53, was sitting on a wall in Darlinghurst early one morning in 2015 when he was apprehended by police.

According to Attalla, he was simply texting and smoking a cigarette when the police officers approached him and asked what he was doing.

Attalla responded that he was heading back to his home in The Rocks but this account wasn't accepted by one officer, who told the court the man was heading in the "wrong direction".

Police carry out strip searches in pursuit of drugs. Photo: Getty Images

The police officers said they believed Attalla was in possession of illegal drugs, and when he refused to submit to a search, he was arrested for hindering police procedure.

He was searched at the scene, but no drugs were found. He was then driven to Kings Cross police station and submitted to a strip search, forced to take off his clothes then squat naked to expose his genitals to police officers.

NSW Police argued the officers had reasonable grounds to search Attalla, because of the time and location where he was found.

District Court Judge Phillip Taylor ruled the police officers had operated with "reckless indifference" to their legal requirements and rejected the argument that the time and location justified the search.

Taylor said that he did not accept the grounds that "sitting on a stone wall could, false or true, support a suspicion for possessing prohibited drugs."

He continued that the original search for illicit drugs was unlawful and Attalla had a right to resist the officers' demands.

He was awarded the damages for wrongful arrest, assault, and battery from both the arrest and the strip search.

What does NSW say about strip searching?

In NSW, it is illegal to conduct a strip search unless the police officer suspects on reasonable grounds that it's necessary for the purposes of a search.

Justin Wong, a criminal law specialist from Streeton Lawyers, told 10 daily strip searches can be carried out only when it is considered necessary. This can be for purposes "including finding out whether person is carrying anything that might be dangerous, could help them escape or is evidence connected to the alleged offence."

Wong added if the search does not meet these requirements, only a conventional over-the-clothing search should be conducted.

Even though 'suspicion' in itself is subjective for police officers, it must be based on grounds considered objectively reasonable.

It can be considered reasonable by law to search a person based on where they were found, what time of day, or how they were acting. In Attalla's case, police argued his startled appearance when they arrived was grounds for suspicion.

However, Taylor said it was "unsurprising" for a person's attention to be raised when approached by police.

When the strip search is deemed necessary, it has to be carried out as quickly as possible, using the least invasive methods possible, by officers of the same sex as the alleged offender.

Photo: AAP

"The genitals or breast area must not be searched during a strip search unless the officer suspects on reasonable grounds that it is necessary," Wong said.

Suspects also cannot be questioned during the search ,and police must allow people to dress quickly as soon as the search is completed.

Critics of strip searches speak up

David Shoebridge, a Greens MP in NSW Parliament, claimed police are now conducting 50 percent more strip searches than they were four years ago.

The state politician also claimed police officers are currently not sufficiently trained in recognising the humiliating and traumatising effects of strip searches -- particularly for survivors of sexual assault.

Redfern Legal Centre has called on NSW Police to release an internal document detailing how police are applying strip search laws.

Samantha Lee, a solicitor from Redfern Legal Centre, argues it is in the public interest for such a document to be released.

She claimed there are "potentially thousands of others who may have been subjected to humiliating, harmful and potentially unlawful searches".

Police sign Sydney Australia. Source: Getty Images.

Shoebridge said methods of strip searching appear to be left to the discretion of different local police commands throughout the state.

"We need to have an additional constraint on police before they undertake a strip search, whether that's approval by a senior officer, a clearer set of requirements before that approval is given or some other external reference point," he said.