Can officers search a property for drugs when lawfully on the premises?

20 July 2020

Not reviewed after the date of publication

Question: 

Officers used section 17 of PACE to facilitate entry to a property for a person suspected of an indictable offence. However, without officers being aware the suspect had managed to leave the property prior to entry being made.

Once inside the property a search is made to no gain but a quantity of class B drugs are located in plain sight packaged up and ready to be sold.

Can officers then search the property under section 23 Misuse of Drugs Act as they are lawfully on the premises, or would officers have any other powers to search?

Answer:

Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in which the constable suspects drugs may be found. Section 23(3) provides that if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that controlled drugs are in the possession of a person on any premises, a warrant may be granted to enter and search those premises.

If you are lawfully on premises for the purpose of making an arrest, as described, then section 19 of PACE can be used to seize evidence of drugs offences; however, this does not provide any power to search; only the power to seize items that are in plain sight. The power to search under section 17 is only for the purpose stated in that section; i.e. if you enter under section 17 to carry out an arrest, you can only search for the purpose of finding the suspect you wish to arrest; you would not be able to search in drawers etc. for drugs.

Therefore, in the circumstances, a warrant should be obtained under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in order to do a proper drugs search.

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