There may be circumstances when the police have the power to enter premises and search them with a view to either arresting someone, seizing items in connection with a crime, or both.
Student Attorney Darius Emrith examined this issue for the Hugh Wooding Law School’s Human Rights Law Clinic. Darius’s article was published in the Trinidad Guardian Newspaper on Monday 7th December, 2015.
There are two circumstances where a police officer’s powers of search and seizure may arise: (i) in effecting an arrest; and (ii) in effecting a search warrant. This article focuses mainly on the search of one’s private property in effecting a search warrant.
Generally, a search warrant is necessary for entry and search of anyone’s private premises. A search warrant may be issued to enter a building or any place to search for evidence in relation to any summary offence, as outlined in section 41 of the Summary Courts Act Chap. 4:20. The only legal way to search one’s premises, other than in effecting an arrest, is with a search warrant or the express permission of the owner.
Where the question of effecting an arrest arises, an officer may enter premises without a warrant:
- to prevent a murder;
- to arrest an offender who was followed into the premises;
- to prevent the commission of a crime, and
- to follow an offender running away from an officer.
Issuing of a Search Warrant
A magistrate or judge issues a search warrant once a police officer satisfies the magistrate or judge that he has reasonable cause to suspect that grounds exist to justify the issue of the warrant. These grounds must be sworn on oath. There is no need to first lay a charge, but evidence obtained from the search may then be used to justify the charge.
Execution of a Search Warrant
A search warrant may be addressed to any police officer. If a specific officer is named, he alone can enforce the warrant. Search warrants may be executed at any time on any day of the week. A police officer can even break down the outer door of the premises to execute the warrant, if a demand for entry has been refused.
Usually, a search warrant is executed in the presence of the occupier or, if he is absent, in the presence of any adult on the premises. The police will read the warrant to the person and after the search, the officer should endorse on the back of the warrant what was found and seized, the name of the person present and the time and date.
Seizure of Property
The police can seize any items from premises they have lawfully entered, which may constitute evidence to implicate the person in some crime, even if the items are not related to the reason for the search or entry. Seized goods may be retained as long as necessary to prosecute that crime.
If the police lawfully seize property on suspicion that it was illegally obtained, they can only hold such property for a reasonable time. The police would have to show that they have reasonable grounds for believing that the property was stolen, and that its continued detention is necessary to complete their investigations.
Even if the police seize goods illegally (that is by illegal entry or by an illegally obtained warrant) they may retain them once the goods constitute evidence in relation to a crime. However the homeowner may have recourse in an action for damages.
Students of the Hugh Wooding Law School Human Rights Law Clinic were each given the opportunity to write an article for the “Law Made Simple” column in the Trinidad Guardian newspaper.
These topics ranged from analysis of specific legislation, to general legal concepts. The aim of this exercise was to teach the students how to write about complex legal issues, for the average newspaper reader.
This article was re-published with permission from the Human Rights Law Clinic.