Legal Updates

Road Traffic Advice Update – Police Officers’ right to seize your vehicle

Written by Adam Evans

The provisions of section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 came in to effect on 1st January 2003 and provides uniformed police officers and Police Community Support Officers (PCSO) with powers to deal with persons using mechanically propelled vehicles in an anti-social manner, either on or off road.

The measure introduced by section 59, was brought in to respond to growing public concern about the anti-social use of vehicles. Although not expressly reserved for youths racing vehicles around estates and driving recklessly on roads and footpaths, or across parks and open spaces, a section 59 notice is undoubtingly intended to deter new or overzealous drivers whose driving could be deemed dangerous or antisocial. Applied in the wrong situations however can lead to experiences drivers with little or no previous record of driving misdemeanours being caught out by this provision.

For the powers to be available, an officer must have reasonable grounds for believing that a mechanically propelled vehicle is being, or has been used on any occasion in a manner which;

a) is consistent with careless or inconsiderate driving, and

b) causes, or is likely to cause alarm, distress or annoyance to members of the public.

Upon witnessing, or receiving complaints of such behaviour an officer can issue a notice on the driver and the vehicle, registering them of the Police NICHE Intelligence Log detailing the offender, the vehicle and the circumstances. Repeat behaviour involving either of the offending parties (driver or vehicle) within 12 months of the notice will result in seizure of the offending vehicle. This framework caters for individuals who use numerous vehicles in an antisocial manner, and several persons using the same vehicle in an antisocial manner.

The reasonable grounds test means that the requirements an officer must satisfy before exercising his powers under section 59 are relatively easy to prove, and may be influenced by stereotype or their perception of an individual and the type of vehicle being driven. In such circumstances, an officer plays the role of both judge and jury. This approach has been criticised in the media due to the increased powers provided to police officers and community support officers, who are usually not afforded the same level of discretion.

On one hand the section 59 provisions can be viewed as a further crackdown on Antisocial Behaviour (ASB) and, coupled with the ‘New Drivers Provisions’ which allows a licence to be revoked if 6 penalty points are incurred within 2 years of obtaining a licence, a deterrent to newer and less experienced drivers who might be tempted to drive in a way that causes alarm distress or annoyance to the general public. On the other, they can be seen as a tool in which younger drivers are isolation and targeted to the extent that they are at a greater risk of having their vehicle seized or having to retake both parts of the driving test in circumstances where an older, more experienced driver may simply get off with a verbal warning.

The powers afforded to officers under section 59 of the Police Reform Act reach far and wide, allowing officers to seize and remove a vehicle from private property, other than a dwelling house, on which he has reasonable grounds for believing the vehicle to be if a second warning has been issued within 12 months of the initial warning.

For these purposes it is important to note that a garage does not fall in to the definition of a dwelling house therefore allowing officers almost unrestricted access in order to obtain and seize a vehicle. Section 59 also provides that any person who fails to stop a mechanically propelled vehicle when required to do so by an officer under this legislation, commits a summary only offence punishable by a maximum fine of £1000, thereby increasing police powers and liability on the driver.

You may think that the trouble ends there however, the Police (Retention and Disposal of motor Vehicles) Regulations 2002 make provision for the retention, storage and disposal of vehicles seized under these powers. What this means for the owner of the vehicle is that once the vehicle has been seized, they will have a period of 21 days to reclaim it, pay a removal and release fee dependant on the size and type of vehicle, and pay an additional fee for each period of 24 hours or a part thereof during which the vehicle is impounded. All in all, a rather expensive and regretful experience.

There are means in which these costs can be waived however the owner will need to pay up before writing to the relevant police force to try to reclaim the amount. In such circumstances, you may wish to consult with a legal professional who can argue your case and apply to reimburse part or the whole fee.

It is imperative the owner reclaims the seized vehicle within the allotted 21 day window, otherwise they run the risk of the vehicle being disposed of. In situations where the police have custody of the seized vehicle and are unable to serve notice upon the owner of the vehicle, or that person fails to remove the vehicle from their custody, they must take reasonable steps to identify the owner, but failing this the vehicle will be sold.

Philip Somarakis has advised clients whom have faced the threat of or whom have had their vehicle seized under various police powers. In one case he was involved in, where the car was initially impounded for not being insured, an application was made to the High Court preventing the Metropolitan Police from disposing of a £55,000 Range Rover which was about to be sold at auction.

In this instance, the applicant was fortunate to avoid having his vehicle sold however, in circumstances where a sale proceed, the proceeds of sale, less any charges accumulated for the removal and storage, are payable to the owner, that is if he claims within a year of the sale. Otherwise the money is lost and the legal owner loses his right to claim the sale proceeds. Such circumstances will lead to the owner becoming carless and potentially out of pocket if the car is sold at auction and does not attract its true value.

Many believe that these measures go too far and are an unnecessary step given other powers available to the police under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Whatever your view, it is clear that this is a complex area of law which is both open to interpretation and being misapplied. If you are ever faced with a section 59 notice and are confused by what it means, seek legal advice.

Contact the Author

Adam Evans

Gordon Dadds