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Criminal & traffic law

Search powers: When the police can search you, your home or your things

Searching you personally

The police can legally search you if:

  • you agree to being searched, so long as they’re searching for something they legally have the power to search for, or
  • have a specific search power under an Act, or
  • they arrest you.

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 124

The police can search you if you give them permission to search you.

The police can’t do an internal search (or “cavity” search), with or without your consent, except for searching inside your mouth (with your consent). Only a doctor can do a cavity search, and only under the strict conditions set out in drug laws (the Misuse of Drugs Act).

Searching you under statutory authority (a power in an Act)

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, ss 18, 22, 27

The police have the power to search you, with or without a search warrant, if they have reasonable grounds to believe that:

  • you have illegal drugs on you, or
  • you’re carrying firearms or offensive weapons.

Searching you after you’ve been arrested

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, ss 21, 85, 88, 125

When the police have arrested you, they have the power to do a rub-down search (“frisk” you). This involves the police officer running or patting their hands over your body, outside or inside your clothing but not inside your underwear. The officer can put their hand into your pockets and require you to lift or rub your hair, and to show them the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, or inside your mouth.

However, the police can carry out a more thorough search if they have reasonable grounds to believe that you’re carrying, or have on you, evidence relevant to the offence for which you’ve been arrested, or something that could be used to harm any person or to help you escape.

The police also have a separate power to search, by force if necessary, any person taken into custody – that is, when you’re being held at a police station or in a police vehicle or in any place being used for police purposes. This is a thorough search and is usually carried out in the police station.

These searches all have to be done in a reasonable way, and you must be provided with reasonable privacy.

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 23

If the police are going to search you under a power granted by an Act, the police officer must first caution you, which means telling you that:

  • you have the right to stay silent
  • you have the right to talk to a lawyer in private without delay, and that you can get free legal advice from a lawyer under the Police Detention Legal Assistance Scheme
  • anything you say can be noted down and used in evidence against you in court.

The police officer must also:

  • identify themselves to you and, if not in uniform, produce ID
  • tell you you’re going to be searched, and why
  • tell you the particular statutory power the search is being carried out under, including the name and section number of the relevant Act
  • tell you about your rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

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Police powers

Where to go for more support

Community Law

Your local Community Law Centre can provide you with free initial legal advice.

Find your local Community Law Centre online: www.communitylaw.org.nz/our-law-centres

YouthLaw Aotearoa

YouthLaw provides free legal advice for young people throughout New Zealand. Their website provides great information for young people about the law.

Website: www.youthlaw.co.nz
Email: nzyouthlaw@gmail.com
Phone: 0800 UTHLAW (0800 884 529)

New Zealand Law Society

The Law Society has helpful information on your rights when dealing with the police.

Website: www.lawsociety.org.nz/for-the-public/common-legal-issues/you-and-the-police

Independent Police Conduct Authority

The Independent Police Conduct Authority website has information about how the Authority receives and investigates complaints about the Police.

Website: www.ipca.govt.nz
Email: info@ipca.govt.nz
Phone: 0800 503 728

To make a complaint online: complaints.ipca.govt.nz/195

Police Detention Legal Assistance (PDLA)

Under the PDLA scheme, you can talk to a lawyer for free if you’ve been arrested. The service is provided for free, 24/7.

Email: legalaidprovider@justice.govt.nz
Phone: 04 918 8800

For more information: www.justice.govt.nz/about/lawyers-and-service-providers/legal-aid-lawyers/pdla

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