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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.

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

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 124

Apart from searching inside your mouth (with your consent), the police can’t do an internal search (or “cavity” search), with or without 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)

There are several situations when police have the power to search you, with or without a search warrant:

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 22

  • Drugs – if the police have reasonable grounds to believe you have illegal drugs on you

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, ss 18, 27

  • Weapons – if the police have reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying firearms or offensive weapons.

Searching you after you’ve been arrested

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 85

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 their hands, the soles of their feet, or inside your mouth.

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 88

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.

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 125

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 privacy of the police station.

Search and Surveillance Act 2012, s 21

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 himself or herself 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

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Community Law


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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)

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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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