The meaning of means: mental elements of drug importation in Australia

To find out what the law is you first look for relevant legislation. When deciding how to explain the law about the state of mind required for proof of unlawful importation into Australia of a border controlled drug, a judge will first look at the Criminal Code (C’th). Relevant sections are s 307.1 and the fault elements defined in ss 5.1 – 5.4.

The High Court of Australia in Smith v The Queen, The Queen v Afford [2017] HCA 19 (10 May 2017) (hereafter “Smith”) at [69] has given guidance as to how to logically apply this legislation to cases where the mental elements of unlawful importation of a narcotic are in issue.

These appeals reached the High Court because of difficulties around how the process of drawing inferences should be explained. Difficulties arose because of the need for intention as to one element but only recklessness as to another. Intention is necessary as to the bringing of a thing (whatever it may be) into Australia, and recklessness is sufficient as to whether it is a border controlled drug.

Inference drawing is a matter of proof. Proof of intention by inference can arise from circumstances which show that the defendant “was aware of the likelihood, in the sense that there was a significant or real chance, that his conduct involved [the prohibited] act and nevertheless persisted in that conduct”: Kural v The Queen (1987) 162 CLR 502, [1987] HCA 16 (and quoted in Smith at [7]). The statutory language changed after Kural, and now the concept of a significant or real chance calls to mind the phrase “a substantial risk” in the definition of recklessness (s 5.4).

The risk of confusing the old common law with the new statutory language no doubt lies behind the joint judgment’s comment in Smith at [68] that “looking to the future it might be preferable if directions given in cases like these were made to align more closely to the language of the Code, and in particular to the statutory definition of intent in s 5.2”.

In s 5.2(1), intention includes meaning to do something, here, to import the substance (at [6]). The Court’s guidance as to appropriate directions on the drawing of inferences include (at [69] para 8(ii)) that it is open to use a proven belief that there was a real or significant chance that the thing was done, to support an inference that it was meant to be done. This comes from the Kural exposition of the law, and needs to be read in the light of the Court’s fuller explanation. The point in Smith is that awareness of a real or significant chance means that “it is open to infer on the basis of all the facts and circumstances of the case that the accused intended to import the substance” (at [60]), and where “a person is aware of a real or significant chance of the presence of an extraneous substance in an object which the person brings into Australia, and does nothing by way of inspection or declaration to avoid the risk of its presence, the circumstances of the case strongly suggest that the person’s state of mind is, in truth, that he or she is prepared to proceed with bringing the object into Australia even if the substance is in the object; and thus that the person means and intends to import the substance” (at [59]).

This is perilously close to recklessness at common law, and one must wonder whether attempts to substitute for the clear language of a statute are necessarily helpful. Did the word “means” in s 5.2(1) really need to be explained in terms of a real and substantial risk?

Knowledge, in law, includes wilful blindness. This is the state of mind of a person who ignores a suspicion because of a determination to remain ignorant of the truth. That person is deemed to know the truth. See R v Briscoe 2010 SCC 13, [2010] 1 SCR 411, and R v Martin [2007] NZCA 386 at [11] where consistency with R v Kural [1986] VR 673 at 676-678 is noted. So, acting with that knowledge is meaning to do that thing, and is intending to do it. This is different from recklessness, where a person simply fails to take the measures that a reasonable person would have taken to investigate whether the suspicion is true.

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