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Criminal & traffic law

Being arrested or detained (held) by the police: Their powers and your rights

When the police can make an arrest

When can the police arrest someone?

Crimes Act 1961, s 315; Bail Act 2000, s 37; Bill of Rights Act 1990

The police can arrest you if:

  • they find you committing an offence punishable by a jail term (or they’ve got good reason to suspect this), or
  • they find you “disturbing the peace” (or they’ve got good reason to suspect this), or
  • it’s a situation where they’ve got a specific legal power to arrest you – for example, if you’ve breached a family violence Protection Order (for some examples, see below “Specific powers to arrest or hold you”), or
  • they have a warrant for your arrest issued by a court – these can be issued for a range of reasons, including if you’ve breached a bail condition, or if you didn’t turn up at court when you were supposed to.

Note: Most arrests happen without a warrant. Some statutes that create particular offences may restrict police powers to arrest without a warrant for those offences. A failure by the police to consider their discretion to arrest is unlawful and arbitrary.

Specific powers to arrest or hold you

These are some of the powers the police have under specific Acts to arrest a person without a warrant:

Summary Offences Act 1981, ss 39(1), 39(2)

  • Minor offences in the Summary Offences Act A police officer can arrest you if they’ve got good reason to suspect you’ve committed an offence against the Summary Offences Act. This Act deals with a range of less serious crimes like common assault, tagging, disorderly behaviour, and drinking in public (some of these are covered in the chapter “Common crimes”).

Family Violence Act 2018, s 113

  • Breaching a family violence Protection Order – The police can arrest a person they have good cause to suspect has breached a Protection Order. (See the chapter “Family violence and elder abuse”.)

Policing Act 2008, s 36

  • Drunk in a public place or when trespassing – If the police find you drunk in a public place, or drunk while trespassing on private property, they can take you into police custody. They have to release you once you’ve sobered up, and can’t hold you for more than 12 hours.

Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, s 109

  • Mental illness – The police can take you into custody if you’re in a public place and they’ve got reasonable grounds to believe you have a mental disorder. They can take you to a police station, hospital, or other appropriate place, and arrange for a doctor to examine you as soon as practicable. See the chapter “Mental health”.

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Police powers

Where to go for more support

Community Law


The Community Law website contains legal information, education, and law reform resources about the police. Your local Community Law Centre can provide free initial legal advice about any issue relating to the police.

YouthLaw Aotearoa


Phone: 0800 UTHLAW (0800 884 529)
Email: nzyouthlaw@gmail.com

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

“You and the police” (Law Society pamphlet)

This pamphlet has information about what to do when being questioned or arrested by the police. You can access the pamphlet online at:

You can also order hardcopies from:

Phone: (04) 472 7837
Email: pamphlets@lawsociety.org.nz

Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA)


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

The IPCA receives and investigates complaints against the police. A complaint form is available online.

Legal Aid


The Ministry of Justice website has a range of information about Legal Aid.

It also has information about the Police Detention Legal Assistance Scheme (free legal help when someone is being held, arrested or questioned by the police) – go to:

You can also order hard copies of Ministry of Justice pamphlets from:

Phone: 0800 587 847
Email: publications@justice.govt.nz

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