Seizure of motor vehicles used in criminal offences found without owner

16 December 2020

Not reviewed after the date of publication

Question: 

Over the course of several days a motor vehicle makes off from officers multiple times. It repeatedly fails to stop and commits offences against S.3 RTA 1988 which are under investigation.

A few hours after the most recent incident of the vehicle failing to stop, the vehicle is located locked and secure with the driver/suspect not present.

Is there any legal power to seize the vehicle?

Answer:

The only power to seize a vehicle under the Road Traffic Act 1988 is for seizure of vehicle driven without insurance or licence under section 165A. There are no other provisions within the RTA which allow for seizure. Both offences above are summary offences and therefore you could not use section 8 of PACE either in the circumstances you have described.

Section 59 of the Police Reform Act allows a police constable in uniform to seize a vehicle where he has reasonable grounds for believing that a motor vehicle is being used on any occasion in a manner which -

(a) contravenes section 3 or 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) (careless and inconsiderate driving and prohibition of off-road driving), and
(b) is causing, or is likely to cause, alarm, distress or annoyance to members of the public,
he shall have the powers set out in subsection (3).

Subsection (3) states that those powers are -

(a) the power, if the motor vehicle is moving, to order the person driving it to stop the vehicle;
(b) the power to seize and remove the motor vehicle;
(c) the power, for the purposes of exercising a power falling within paragraph (a) or (b), to enter any premises on which he has reasonable grounds for believing the motor vehicle to be;
(d) the power to use reasonable force, if necessary, in the exercise of any power conferred by any of paragraphs (a) to (c).

Subsection (4) does not require a warning to be given by a constable on any occasion on which he would otherwise have the power to seize a motor vehicle under this section if -

(a) the circumstances make it impracticable for him to give the warning;
(b) the constable has already on that occasion given a warning under that subsection in respect of any use of that motor vehicle or of another motor vehicle by that person or any other person;
(c) the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that such a warning has been given on that occasion otherwise than by him; or
(d) the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that the person whose use of that motor vehicle on that occasion would justify the seizure is a person to whom a warning under that subsection has been given (whether or not by that constable or in respect of the same vehicle or the same or a similar use) on a previous occasion in the previous twelve months.

Alternatively, section 19 of PACE may allow for the seizure of a vehicle if officers are already lawfully on any premises. In the case of Cowan v Commissioner of the Metropolis 1999, where the removal of a car for examination was challenged, the following interpretation was made confirming the police's ability to remove and retain a vehicle for examination and to assist an investigation. The Court in Cowan states that there was no reason why 'anything' could not mean 'everything' that was moveable and it was practicable to remove. It did not matter that that property could itself be considered to be premises. The removal of the vehicle was lawful. However, we would advise, that this should only be used for serious offences and where it is necessary to seize the whole of the vehicle as evidence, as in the Cowan case.

Powers of search and seizure in relation to premises after arrest under sections 32 or 18 of PACE only apply to indictable offences also and so would not apply in these circumstances. It is arguable that the common law power of seizure may be relied upon in absence of a specific statutory power. Please see D18625 for a discussion of this common law power. Again however, we would be of the opinion that this would only be justified in the case of more serious offences.

We would be of the opinion that section 59 would be the most appropriate power to seize the vehicle in the circumstances you have described.

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