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 [1963] 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 [1974] 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?


  1. I'm a shires police officer and watched that programme last night. I must admit I thought exactly the same thing in relation to the RTA power.

    I was also thinking that several of the unfortunates who were stopped should then not got out of their cars, ignored the bailiffs completely, established that the police constables who stopped them had no further issues to discuss and driven away. I'm sure the producers did cut out footage of the police doing standard DL/insurance/wanted persons checks as this wasn't an episode of Traffic Cops after all but those take minutes and the police had visibly backed away by the time the aired footage was being recorded.

    I also found it pretty disconcerting to see the bloke in the awful baseball cap get into a loud but totally inoffensive argument with the lady bailiff, who gave as good as she got back, only to see the police officer present step in on her side by warning him about his behaviour.

  2. We police know that drivers with outstanding debts are often the ones that have warrants and drive uninsured cars etc.
    Not defending these road-checks but that is why the senior officers like us doing them

    1. It is precisely this sort of attitude from from you police that alienates the public.
      You are there to protect and serve the public and not to keep the local council happy by assisting with collecting their ill gotten gains you pig headed prick !!

    2. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?
      Arresting wanted people and catching uninsured drivers is protecting and serving.
      Nice to know that you speak for the whole public as well.Or just the criminal elements?

    3. "Protect and serve" is the LAPD chap. Trust me, you'd rather us than them.

    4. So presumably if I wanted help collecting a private debt from someone, the police would also assist me in stopping the driver's vehicle and detaining him at the roadside?

  3. The programme was on again last night.
    Same scenario with Police and Bailiffs.
    If they had been stopped by the Police for an offence (perhaps no tax, insurance or Mot), why were they allowed to drive on after paying the Bailiffs?

  4. Its no surprise that some on here are supporting those who fail to pay their fines.. Law abiding people suffer because of the illegal actions of others.

    Bringing back the stocks wouldn't be a bad idea for the abusive comment above. He/she needs his/her mouth washing out with carbolic soap.

    1. Spot on 0646.
      Don't forget the writer of this blog is a defence lawyer so he gets to hear the bleating of criminals all the time and rarely hears the victims like I do.

    2. Since when has not paying a parking ticket been a criminal offence ??
      That is what this discussion was about was it not - the civil not criminal offence of failing to pay a poxy parking fine and then muppet Police officers being manipulated by a team of greedy bailiffs.
      An just why did your fellow boys in blue request that their identities be hidden in the TV programme?
      Just what are they frightened of ?
      It can't be that they're afraid of being beaten up by some enraged TV viewer who comes after them late at night, I mean they carry a truncheon, a tazer, pepper spray and they wear a stab vest
      If they are doing everything by the book then why have their faces pixellated out ( that's another word for blurred, just in case you had never heard the term before )

      Oh sorry I forgot that your'e a copper which means you are absolutely guaranteed to be less intelligent than the average person so you wouldn't really know the difference between a criminal offence and a civil matter would you ?
      Ahhhh well you can't help it can you !!!

    3. Since when has failing to pay a parking fine been a criminal offence ??

    4. Parking tickets are not fines in the sense of being a sentence imposed for the commission of a criminal act. They are a civil penalty imposed by the local authority or owner of the land.

  5. "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."
    Read Private Eye. Luton police have been harassing a forensic scientists ever since she broke up with her policeman boyfriend.

    1. Surprised she hasn't made a complaint to the Chief Constable or IPCC.

    2. Kimpatsu is a well-known buffoon who lurks on blogs like these to post his anti-police nonsense.
      A police officer in uniform can stop any vehicle under the Road Traffic Act,it's not absurd.As for your example-i'm sure it may have happened once but let's not pretend it happens all the time.
      As for the other idiot above-some officers do get their faces blurred.Perhaps they don't want to be identified by undesirables like you when off duty.The won't be carrying their tazer (rare at the moment) truncheon etc etc then.I am of below average intelligence but even I could work that one out.

  6. it is illegal for police to assist in a bailiffs duty. the police are only there to maintain the peace. This is clearly written down some where in UK legislation. If you get stopped ask the police officer why they stopped you. If no offence has been committed drive off, they have now power to stop you unless you have breached the peace. If the bailiff then tries to enter your car, both the police office and the bailiff have committed and offence.

    If for what ever reason the you get out of your car and the bailiff enters your car (illegally that is and you want to wind them up) you can say it is a tool of the trade and you need it for work. There is a limit on how much the car is worth, then even if it is a tool of the trade they can take it. You do not have to provide proof that it is a tool of the trade its up to the bailiff to prove it is not, which the wont. They will also have to prove your car is worth more than the threshold , as they know nothing of the history of the car good look to them.

    Remember at any point you can drive off the police cant stop you. If the bailiff stands in front of the car preventing you driving off they committing an offence by blocking the highway.

  7. Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 2 (2)
    Only an enforcement agent may take control of goods and sell them under an enforcement power.

    Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 31 (5)
    The power to use force does not include power to use force against persons, except to the extent that regulations provide that it does.

    Traffic Management Act 2004 83 (5)
    A person who is not a certificated bailiff but who purports to levy a distress as such a bailiff, and any person authorising him to levy it, shall be deemed to have committed a trespass.

    The Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 4 (1) (a)
    items or equipment (for example, tools, books, telephones, computer equipment and vehicles) which are necessary for use personally by the debtor in the debtor’s employment, business, trade, profession, study or education, except that in any case the aggregate value of the items or equipment to which this exemption is applied shall not exceed £1,350;

  8. See Schedule 7 s99(5) Courts Act 2003

    1. There is no section 99(5) of the Courts Act 2003. Section 99 only has two sub-sections.

      Schedule 7 appears to deal with High Court writs of execution and about warrants issued in connection with the compulsory acquisition of land. I don't get the impression that is what was happening in the film

  9. Isn't the Devil in the detail when it comes to matters of Law?
    The definition of the word "driver" in the Blacks Law Dictionary is a person operating a vehicle for commerce. So if your not operating a vehicle in a commercial capacity, you are a traveller. You are by law allowed to travel unmolested. Is there any president made in court using this argument?

    1. Blacks is obviously more thorough than my Osborn's as mine doesn't define driver.

      I think the problem you'll have with that argument is that Black's definition isn't even a proper definition of the word in the English language. When courts do refer to dictionaries they tend to go to ones like the Oxford English Dictionary rather than law dictionaries who create their definitions by interpreting the law.

      In this case, I would suggest that Blacks has got the law completely wrong in their definition of "driver" if that is all it says. Wilkinsons Road Traffic Law takes 12 and a bit A4 pages (may be more in the book - I'm working from a PDF copy) to define the word "driver". Nowhere does it limit the definition to those carrying out a commercial purpose.


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