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Police powers to stop and search motorists

What powers do the police have to stop motorists? Motor lawyer Jeanette Miller explains.

UK police car

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

They 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 don't stop, you're 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 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:

  • Asking the driver to produce their driving licence.
  • Requesting the driver give his name and address.
  • To ask 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 see a valid MOT certificate.

If you don’t have these with you, you have seven days to take them to a police station, otherwise you're breaking the law.

What should I say if I'm stopped?

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

You're also obliged to show your driving licence and car insurance details.

You need to cooperate with the police in providing these details. Not doing so could be seen as obstructing the police in the course of their duty.

Police officers can also issue an on-the-spot fixed penalty notice for a variety of minor offences.

If an officer suspects that you've committed a more serious offence then you must be cautioned before they speak with you, if they're to use what you say later as evidence.

At which point you are entitled to obtain legal advice. The best thing is to say nothing more until you’ve spoken to a solicitor.

What about random breath testing?

A police officer holding a breathalyser

The courts have said that random breath testing isn't allowed, but police can stop and breathalyse you if:

  • They think you've been drinking
  • You've committed a traffic offence
  • You've been involved in an accident

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

You can use our alcohol units calculator to get an idea of how much you're drinking.

If you refuse to take the test without a "reasonable excuse", such as a physical or mental condition stopping you, you can be arrested.

You can find the full rules for police stops and tests on Gov.uk.

'The police keep stopping me'

If you feel like you're being targeted then don't take the law into your own hands and speed off.

It's also unwise to confront the officer, but you could consider filing a complaint against them.

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

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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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