Police power to stop vehicles for others
|A police road check in action|
Last night I caught part of a BBC3 TV programme that focused on different aspects of parking from one man who hangs about outside his house with binoculars trained on anybody daring to park on “my” road to bailiffs engaged in stopping motorists who had outstanding parking fines and seizing their vehicles. It was the bailiffs that interested me the most.
First, I should say that bailiffs do not have the power to stop traffic, only the police can do that and, sure enough, there were police officers conducting the stops to allow the bailiffs to carry out their work. My first thought was that surely the police have better ways to spend their limited resources than helping private companies enforce civil debts (parking tickets were decriminalised a long time ago). Then I got to wondering how the police could have the power to stop somebody for such a reason.
There are a variety of powers that allow the police to stop a motor vehicle but the one that seems the most relevant is section 163(1) Road Traffic Act 1988, which reads:
“A person driving a motor vehicle on a road must stop the vehicle on being required to do so by a constable in uniform”
It is a criminal offence under s. 163(3) for a person to fail to comply.
The rule seems pretty clear: a police officer in uniform can stop any car they fancy whenever they like. That would be absurd. For example, a PC angry that his wife had left him for another man could use this power to lawfully stop her new lover. Clearly, an unrestricted and unfettered power would be wrong. In the case of R v Waterfield  3 All ER 659, the court held that section 163 does not permit the police to stop a vehicle for an improper purpose. This line of reasoning was followed a decade later in Hoffman v Thomas  RTR 182 in which the court held that a constable must be acting in execution of his duty for a stop under what is now section 163 to be lawful.
The issue in Hoffman was whether a police constable had power to require a motorist to stop and at a census point. The court in that case found that assisting in the conduct of a census was not part of the police officer’s duty, which at common law is to protect life and property and, as such, the constable was not acting in the execution of his duty and so the motorist was not guilty.
Later cases have expanded on these themes such as to allow a lawful breath test to be conducting notwithstanding the unlawfulness of the stop. It was also suggested that random stops are perfectly lawful in that they give a police officer an opportunity to form a view on whether somebody has been drink driving etc. However, it is important to note that these would likely be reasons that fall within the execution of his duty.
We must now ask ourselves what it means for a constable to be acting in the execution of his duty? In Hoffman the court decided that a police officer’s duty is the preservation of life and property. Now, I do not know how much consideration the court gave to that definition but, I believe it is broadly accurate, if somewhat old fashioned.
The Association of Chief Police Officers in what their call their “Peelian Principles” states that, “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder. (http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/reports/2012/201210PolicingintheUKFinal.pdf) I would add to that “detect and investigate crime” as well, but that could arguably be included in the word “prevent”. That seems like a pretty good mission statement for any police force so we can infer that the duty of a police officer is to prevent crime and disorder.
Is assisting a private, for profit, company to collect civil debts acting in the execution of a police constable’s duty? I think that the answer has to be “sometimes”. Where bailiffs are collecting goods from an address the police may be asked to attend where the bailiff believes that an offence may occur if the police are not present. Fair enough. So, what would happen if bailiffs attempted to flag down passing cars from the side of the road without the police being present? Most likely is that the cars would continue driving past. Would an offence be committed? I don’t see why an offence is any more likely in that situation than any other.
If a police constable stops vehicles simply to allow a private company to collect civil debts does that prevent crime and disorder? I would suggest that it does not. Therefore, I believe we can say with some certainty that a stop under s. 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 would not be lawful in such circumstances.
Which leads me back to my original questions: don’t senior police officers have anything better to do than send their officers out working as debt collectors?