Environmental Law Australia

R v Dempsey

This is a case study of an application for leave to appeal to the Queensland Court of Appeal against a sentence imposed by the District Court of Queensland. The decision in the appeal stated important principles for sentencing of serious environmental crimes done for commercial gain.

The facts that led to the appeal were as follows:

Between 20 December 2000 and 2 January 2001 a commercial timber-cutter, Brett Dempsey, illegally cut down and removed 25 large trees from the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in the Upper Barron River near Herberton in North Queensland.

The largest tree felled was estimated to be over 300 years old and most were over 100 years old. When sold at auction the timber yielded $45,000.

The offences were discovered following reports by residents of suspicious activity in the area – vehicles had been seen and heard at unusual times.

On 1 January 2001 this activity was reported to a forestry ranger, along with the registration number of a vehicle owned by Mr Dempsey.

The forestry ranger discovered heavy equipment in the forest, including a skidder (which is used to push trees) and a caterpillar loader.

He went to Mr Dempsey’s home to investigate further. Mr Dempsey denied any knowledge of the incident and gave false information to the officer about the whereabouts of his prime mover truck.

The forestry ranger then discovered that the skidder had been removed from the forest. However, a trail of debris led to a residence at a nearby town, where the vehicle was discovered and seized.

Further investigation by the forestry officer led to a nearby quarry where he discovered the 25 logs had been buried in a 1 metre deep pit.

Mr Dempsey was charged with an offence against section 56(1) of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act 1993 (Qld) and a further count of stealing contrary to section 398(1) of the Criminal Code (the latter offence was because the trees taken were in a national park and therefore the property of the State of Queensland).

Mr Dempsey pleaded guilty on the day of the committal hearing and was later sentenced by the District Court to one year imprisonment for each count, to be served concurrently.

He applied for leave to appeal against the sentence but his application was refused by the Court of Appeal in R v Dempsey [2002] QCA 45. In refusing leave to appeal, Davies JA (with whom McPherson and Williams JJA agreed) stated:

“It is unusual to be confronted with a case of intentionally done environmental damage for commercial gain. … This is an offence in which, in particular, the imposition of a custodial sentence may be an effective deterrent and, in my opinion, that is an important factor here. This was a serious, blatant and cynical act of environmental destruction for commercial gain. Even when one has regard to the plea of guilty I do not think that the sentence imposed for it was manifestly excessive.”

Similarly, McPherson JA stated in R v Dempsey:

“I agree [with the judgment of Davies JA]. I also agree specifically with Mr Justice Davies’ remarks about the custodial period and its effect in cases of this kind. An actual period of prison custody is likely to have a real deterrent effect on others minded to commit like offences over and beyond that in other cases. If offenders consider that they might succeed in escaping with nothing more than a financial penalty, it may be that they would take the risk of doing so for the profit that appears to be recoverable from acts like this.”

These principles are important for sentencing serious environmental crimes done for commercial gain.

Key documents

Thanks to the Office of the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions for supplying the indictment for this case study and to the Supreme Court registry for supplying the appeal documents.