On Saturday 7 February at 6.30pm on Elcho Island, NT, police came to search the house of David and Rosemary Yangarriny for yeast — possible evidence of a home brewing kit, illegal in dry indigenous communities.

David Yangarriny, General Manager of Marthakal Homelands, and his wife Rosemary are respected members of the Galiwin’ku community, off the coast of Arnhem Land. Yangarriny says he has no criminal history to arouse suspicion and that the police had no search warrant.

“Four cops came to my house to ask me about yeast,” Yangarriny tells Crikey. “I asked them where they got permission from, they told me they got it from Ringitj [clan leaders].”

“I was a bit shocked, the police just came in and asked to search my house. They didn’t have a search warrant, they told me they didn’t need a search warrant — they already had the power.”

The police search at Yangarriny’s house found no evidence of alcohol or yeast.

Elcho Island is an indigenous cultural powerhouse; it inspired the song “My Island Home” and is home of famed singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, as well as the more infamous Zorba-fueled Chooky dancers. The big town on the island, Galiwin’ku, had no permanent police presence until recently.

The NT police tell Crikey:

Police acting on information received from a number of sources, searched a further three residences in Galiwin’ku on Saturday evening 7 February, where it was alleged alcohol was being consumed, but did not locate any more alcohol.

Police have powers under the Liquor Act NT, to search a premises where they reasonably suspect alcohol is in the premises (including residences) within the restricted area. Such a search is permitted without warrant. Police explained their powers under the act to the occupants of each house and what they were searching for, and asked for the occupier to assist them, before each search was carried out.

As Bob Gosford has revealed previously in Crikey, Section 95 of the Liquor Act NT provides police with broad powers of entry, search, seizure and disposal of any “thing” involved in the carriage or consumption of grog in restricted areas.

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency lawyer Glen Dooley, who is investigating Yangarriny’s experience, told Crikey the big question was why police should be allowed to search without warrants — particularly for items such as yeast that are not in and of themselves illegal.

“I have never known the NT police to search for ingredients before,” Dooley says. “It might be legal but it might also be over-confrontational or lacking goodwill or politeness.

“There needs to be a balancing act in the Northern Territory that we’re not seeing right now; these searches need to be properly targeted rather than appear like police harassing the community.”

Dooley sees the issue of searches and arrests as symptomatic of the NT government’s inability to tackle alcohol problems at the source with limitations or withdrawals of liquor licenses in problem areas.

“If you really want to have an intervention, the Territory has got to start with clubs and pubs and alcohol, not with yeast or mangos or whatever else in the kitchen that can be turned into alcohol.”