Penalties Revoked?
  |  First Published: May 2007

Townsville anglers who have been fined and convicted for fishing in green zones may have their penalties wiped away. Fishing Party (Qld) chairman, Kevin Collins, said prosecutions based on GPS locators have been proven to be technically flawed, opening the way for appeals for up to 300 anglers along the Queensland coast. The Federal Government may also be forced to pay back to $750,000 in fines and have convictions annulled.

Mr Collins said the reversal should follow a test case before Cairns Magistrates Court in February that saw charges based on GPS readings thrown out after it was ruled that the prosecution brief was technically flawed.

“The Fishing Party (Qld) argued that GPS data is inaccurate and the GBRMPA knows this to be the case,” Mr Collins said.

“When the evidence was put before the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) at a pre-trial hearing on 7 December, the DPP withdrew from the case and withdrew charges against the defendant,” Mr Collins said.

“A second case, heard before Magistrate Trevor Black in the Cairns court on 17 January heard the full brief of evidence. After evidence was presented, the ruling was deferred until 19 February when the magistrate determined the defendant had no case to answer and dismissed the case, awarding costs against the Crown,” he said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority does not allow the use of GPS data as a sole means of fixing a position. Positions must be verified by other navigational means such as compass bearings or radar fixes to confirm the GPS data is accurate at the time of the reading.

GBRMPA introduced re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef in July 2004, which resulted in 33% of the marine park being deemed no-fishing zones.

About 300 recreational fishers have since been breached and taken to court with the majority being fined around $2500 and all but two receiving criminal convictions.

“The Fishing Party has led a campaign against mandatory criminal convictions, arguing this should be an on-the-spot fine, like a parking ticket, and not a criminal offence with all the social ramifications,” Mr Collins said.

“In the vast majority of cases, breaches are a result of ignorance, human error or navigation knowledge, not deliberate acts. These are parking ticket offences in areas where no parking signs exist to warn users,” he said.

Mr Collins said GBRMPA and its enforcement agencies, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and Boating and Fisheries have used GPS information to determine the location of a vessel and then transfer this data on to a GBRMPA zoning map.

“The warm-up screen on all GPS units warns users ‘This device is an aid to navigation only and is not to be used for navigation purposes’.

“This law was making criminals of ordinary citizens while some people convicted of serious crimes can get away with having no conviction recorded,” Mr Collins said.

“The authorities use a piece of equipment, which they know to be inaccurate, the governing body on marine issues (AMSA) knows it to be inaccurate, manufacturers know it to be inaccurate and the units themselves warn users that they cannot be relied on.

“Now that this issue has been determined, an opportunity may exist for all people convicted of offences, which relied on GPS data and GBRMPA maps, to enter an action to have fines and convictions overturned,” Mr Collins said. – Laurie Mills

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