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Blog: Police powers to stop & search motorists

A police car stoppped on a roadWhat powers do the police have to stop motorists and what should you say if you feel you have been stopped unfairly? Motor lawyer Jeanette Miller explains all.

No reason needed

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as being stopped unfairly by the police.

The police can stop you while driving - or riding your bicycle for that matter - whenever they want.

This wide power is given to the police under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

If you do not stop, you are committing a criminal offence for which you could receive a fine.

The power to stop

The Act states that the person stopping you must be a police officer in uniform or a traffic officer.

However, judges have ruled that the police stopping motorists under this Act must be acting "in the execution of their duty".

This means police can’t simply stop drivers for fun, they must have a good reason to do so such as:

  • To require the driver to produce their driving licence;
  • To require the driver to give his name and address;
  • To require the driver to give the name and address of the owner of the vehicle;
  • To require the driver to produce their certificate of insurance;
  • To have the vehicle examined to see if it complies with construction and use regulations;
  • To have the vehicle examined to see if it is in a dangerous condition.

What should I say if I am stopped?

The only hard and fast rule is that you are obliged to tell the police your name, address and the name and address of the owner of the vehicle.

You are also obliged to produce your driving licence and car insurance details.

You need to cooperate with the police in providing these details, as well as allowing the vehicle to be stopped.

Not doing so could be seen as obstructing the police in the course of their duty. 

If an officer suspects that you have committed an offence then you must be cautioned before they speak with you if they are to use what you say in evidence. 

At that point you are entitled to obtain legal advice. My view is that you should say nothing more until you have spoken to a solicitor.

What about random breath testing?

The courts have said that random breath testing is not allowed. So police cannot set up a road block and breath test all drivers.

However, if police do stop a vehicle and suspect that the driver has been drinking - for example by smelling their breath - they can then they can perform a breath test.

If the test shows you to be over the limit, the police can take you to the police station where they will obtain further breath, blood or urine alcohol level tests.

'Nice car prejudice'

In my office we regularly encounter cases where the client was stopped for no apparent reason but was driving a high performance car. We call it nice car prejudice!

The fact that your car might be a Lamborghini is not a good reason for you to be stopped.

If the police were to do so for that reason alone then their action would be unlawful.

However, it is highly unlikely that the police will indicate their reason for stopping you was because of the car you are driving.

But please do not take this as advice to ignore a direction by an officer to stop when you are driving along in your Ferrari.

There might be a perfectly valid reason to stop you.

'The police keep stopping me'

If you feel like you are being targeted then do not take the law into your own hands and speed off.

You could consider a complaint against the officer.

If you do want to complain it is wise to seek legal advice or contact the duty inspector at the police station where the officer who stopped you is based.

Other powers to stop and search

Other legislation allows police to stop and search people and vehicles but these are usually used in the investigation of more serious crimes including terrorism offences.

None of these powers require a police officer to be in uniform or for the vehicle to be on the road.

However, most of these powers need the police to have formed a reasonable suspicion before they act.

Lawyer and legal blogger Jeanette Miller is managing director at motoring law specialists Geoffrey Miller Solicitors

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Jeanette Miller

Jeanette Miller

Lawyer and legal blogger Jeanette Miller is managing director of motoring law specialists Geoffrey Miller Solicitors.

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