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Crime is illegal activity that is prohibited by the law. A crime is often called an ‘offence’. Some people wear shirts that say ‘it’s only illegal if you get caught’. This is untrue. Any activity prohibited by statute or the common law is illegal whether you are caught or not. This is like saying ‘it’s only illegal to hurt children if you get caught’. Most people would agree that hurting children is illegal whether or not the people who commit such crimes are caught.

The law, and the crimes it creates are most often a reflection of morality. Morality is made up of the principles we use to govern our relationships with one another. This is why actions such as stealing, assault, rape, and murder are crimes – each of these acts harms our ability to trust other people, and to feel safe in society.

Other questions around crime are less easy to answer. Why is smoking cannabis a crime and smoking cigarettes not a crime? Why is alcohol legal but not other drugs? These are very difficult questions to answer, and there are many different answers. Often it is a question of cost and benefit. Tobacco products are heavily taxed. The tax from the sale of cigarettes goes to the public health system. Tobacco users will have greater cause to rely on that system later in life. It is more of a benefit to tax cigarettes and use money gained from that for the benefit of all, than to attempt to prevent people smoking them, which would involve more cost, and less benefit in the way of crime prevention. It would also create another large illegal industry, alongside that of drug manufacture and supply.

On the whole, crime is something that has to do with the greater good of society. The law criminalises activities that will hurt our relationships with one another, and in society as a whole. There are different levels of crime though – not all crimes are of the same magnitude. A parking offence is very different to murder. The law reflects the difference between these in the way the legal system deals with each crime, and the penalty imposed. A parking offence will incur a small fine, murder will incur a term of imprisonment.

Major Offences

Major offences, called ‘crimes’ are tried on indictment in the Supreme Court before a judge and jury of twelve citizens. The judge instructs the jury as to the applicable law and the jury decides all issues of fact and then applies those facts to the law in order to reach a verdict. Tasmania, along with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, has an Act codifying the criminal law. This means that we have an Act that sets out all the crimes in our jurisdiction; there is one central source, with a few other Acts that define crimes. The relevant Act in Tasmania is the Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas) (the Criminal Code). The other three States, and the Australian Capital Territory, rely on the common law, updated in parts by state legislation, to determine what is a crime.

Most Tasmanian crimes are set out in the Criminal Code, but there are a few contained elsewhere, such as dangerous driving, and more serious drug offences, for example, trafficking that are tried on indictment. Alleged breaches of more serious Commonwealth laws are tried in the same way.

Lesser Offences

Lesser offences, not strictly ‘crimes’, are contained in numerous pieces of legislation - Police Offences Act 1935 (Tas), Traffic Act 1925 (Tas), Road Safety (Alcohol and Drugs) Act 1970 (Tas), to name a few. Offences are also set out in regulations made under many Acts such as the numerous regulations under the Traffic Act.

Alleged breaches of such Acts, and the regulations made under them, are decided summarily by a magistrate.

Proceedings are commenced by complaint (Justices Act 1959 (Tas), s27). A complaint is a document usually issued by the police to a justice of a court, containing an allegation that a person has committed an offence of a minor nature. A justice is usually a magistrate in the case of lesser offences. The person against who the complaint is made will also be given a copy of the complaint. A person can be brought before the court in several ways. If they are in custody, they may be bailed by the police or a magistrate to appear in court at a later date. They can also be brought before the court by way of a summons. A summons is a document issued by the court to a person, usually by mail, detailing the date, time, place and reason a person must be in court, If a person fails to answer a summons by appearing in court, a justice can issue a warrant for their apprehension.

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