“What is the offence I’ve committed?
I’ve stopped you under Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act.
What is Section 163?
Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act gives me the power to stop you.
What is your suspicion on me first of all?
I don’t have any suspicion, it’s Section 163.
Well if you don’t have suspicion, I’m sorry you can’t stop me for no reason. I’m insured, taxed, I’m a very old driver.”
This was my client’s reaction to being stopped by the police whilst driving his car. Is the driver right to assert that the officer cannot stop him without suspicion? Or is the officer correct to state that that he doesn’t need any suspicion of an offence to lawfully pull the driver over?
In America, for a traffic stop to be lawful the officer must have “probable cause”; i.e. a strong, unbiased reason for suspecting that the driver had committed a traffic violation.
But in this context, probable or reasonable cause does not apply in England and Wales, there is no requirement for an officer to have any reason – let alone reasonable grounds or suspicion – to stop a person when driving.
Under Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988, a constable in uniform has the power to stop any vehicle that is being driven on the road. If required to stop, a person must do so, otherwise they will be guilty of an offence.
This means that the power can be exercised ‘completely at random’, but nevertheless entirely lawfully. For example, a constable in uniform can stop every third car he sees, or every red car – and if required to stop and the driver fails to do so, then they are guilty of an offence.
Given that there is a power to stop a vehicle on the road and non-compliance potentially results in a criminal sanction, it must be the case that the police have a power to detain (not arrest, unless of course the person fails to comply) a person for the purposes specified under the RTA 1988.
Section 164 of RTA 1988 provides that on being required to do so by a constable in uniform, a person must produce his licence for examination, so as to enable the constable to ascertain the person’s name and address, the date of issue of the licence and the authority by which it was issued. Further, the person must, on being required to produce his licence by a constable in uniform, be able to state his date of birth. Again, a failure to produce the licence may result in the person being found guilty of an offence, unless certain circumstances apply. It is a defence to such a charge for the person to show, for example, that he produced his licence at a specified time at a police station, within seven days of being required to produce it (known colloquially as ‘being given a producer’).
Section 165 of RTA 1988 requires that a person must give his name and address, and the name and address of the owner of the vehicle and produce documents such as the insurance certificate or a test certificate or goods vehicle test certificate.
Thus, so far in the encounter with my client the Police Officer had acted lawfully. The conversation continued;
“Prove it, (i.e. that the driver was insured, taxed) get out of the car”.
“No I’ll give you my ID. I don’t have to get out of my car, that’s the law, I don’t have to get out of my car. There’s my ID (my client handed over his driving licence at this point) and check it. I didn’t refuse to comply with the rules…”
“Hand me your keys”.
“I’m not going to hand you my keys”.
“Give me your keys because I don’t want you to start driving away”.
“I’m not driving away anywhere. That’s why I pulled in a secure location”.
“Do you want to be done for obstruct police because that’s where we are at the moment. I’m trying to do a road traffic check on you”.
“Go check it, go check it”.
“Once you’ve given me your keys”.
This is where it now gets interesting.
There is no obligation on the part of the driver to get out, or hand over his keys (although the Police Federation are campaigning for an amendment to the law which would give Police Officers the authority to require drivers to turn off their engine when stopped and also to demand, where appropriate, that all occupants leave a vehicle).
Given that my client refused to hand over his keys, the Police Officer now grabbed and handcuffed his right hand and sought to extract him from the car. Somewhat belatedly, the Officer told my client he was under arrest for obstruction, notwithstanding that my client had stopped the vehicle and had handed over his driving licence.
Eventually, by reason of the force applied, my client released his seatbelt and got out whereupon he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back. My client was then ushered into the back of the Officer’s car and his details were checked. Having verified his details, the Officer then de-arrested my client and released the handcuffs.
My client is now bringing a claim against the Police. Liability is denied on the basis that my client’s actions prevented the Officer from safely confirming my client’s information in accordance with the Road Traffic Act. The trial is scheduled for later this year.
I believe that this encounter escalated because both parties failed to fully understand the law governing traffic stops – a mistake far more reprehensible on the part of the Police Officer as it resulted in his assault upon and arrest of my client.
I would advise all drivers to understand their obligations under the Road Traffic Act; but I also call upon our Chief Constables to ensure as a matter of urgency that their officers understand – and respect – the limits of their own authority under that Act.