Police Powers

Police Powers

Police have three primary powers:

  1. Prevent and deter crime from occurring by maintaining a public presence.
  2. Investigate criminal activities.
  3. Assist in the prosecution of offenders.

The main piece of legislation referred to is the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002, which outlines:

  • The power to arrest (section 21)
  • A person cannot simply be arrested for questioning.
  • Police must either have an arrest warrant, or they must be arresting a person for the purpose of taking them before a court, based on reasonable grounds.
  • Issue cautions and warnings
  • This is generally used for smaller offences, such as public order offences.
  • Issue infringement notices
  • Used only for traffic offences, the police officer can make the motorist pay a fine to compensate their offence.
  • Stop, search and detain
  • Confined to situations where police have reasonable grounds to suspect that a person/vehicle is carrying an illegal article.

Police powers are the powers which police have in investigating a crime

Search and seizure

– Police have the power to search people,places and motor vehicles, and seize or take evidence

– They have the power to search premises in order to investigate a crime, this can be done if they occupier gives consent or the police have a search warrant

– Police can search anyone reasonably suspected of possessing stolen property or anything which could be used in committing a serious offence

– Police may also search a person after arrest

Access to information

– Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) gives police the ability to cross-reference details of all “persons of interest”

– It shows people with a criminal history, people with an outstanding warrant, someone who is the subject of an intelligence report or an domestic violence order, anyone who holds a gun licence, a person with a history of mental illness, a victim of a crime or a suspect.

– Concerns of privacy have been raised


– Police have the right to ask questions, but a suspect need not answer them except in special circumstances such as: a driver must produce his/her licence on request, a person must give their information if they have been involved in a motor accident and a person must give information to a customs officer about drug smuggling

– Most police stations are now equipped to video or audio taped interviews to protect an alleged offender of being verballed

Electronic surveillance

– Police may tap phones if they obtain a warrant from a judge first. They do not need a warrant in cases of sieges, kidnapping or hostages

– Surveillance cameras in public street have been set up by local councils and police, this has seen a significant drop in crime because people feel safer in these areas.

– Concerns have been raised due to an invasion of privacy

Medical examinations

– Police may order an arrested person to undergo a medical examination, this includes DNA samples and forensic evidence

– This provides an establishment for a DNA database

– If a person is reasonably suspected of committing a serious crime and refuses to consent to giving a sample then the police can take a sample of hair by force, or can obtain an order from a magistrate to take a sample by force


– The law enforcements (powers and responsibilities) Act 2002 allows police to keep a suspect for 4 hours for investigation. An application must be made to a magistrate to keep a suspect for up to 8 hours.

– A drunk and disordered person may be detained for up to 48 hours without arrest.

– A person suspected of being about to engage in terrorist activity can be detained in prison for 48 hours without charge

Fingerprints and photographs

– Police have the power to take photographs of an fingerprints an arrested person, for identification

The role of discretion in the exercise of police powers

– Police discretion can play a large role in the investigation of criminal offences. Police must decide, because of limited resources, which areas to patrol, which crimes to target and which reports to investigate.

– Lack of resources also affects how thorough the investigation is. In poorer socioeconomic areas it is often easier to find someone to accuse of a crime, due to this the crime may not always be as thoroughly investigated as it could be.

– An individual police officer uses discretion to decide whether to investigate certain behaviour, whether to charge a suspect or whether to let a young offender go with a caution. The decision of the police offender may be influenced by the alleged offender’s race, appearance, family background or address.


Extract from Legal Studies Stage 6 Syllabus. © 2009 Board of Studies NSW.