Enforcing motoring laws

Enforcing motoring laws

Police powers

The police have the power to ensure that vehicle owners obey the law. A police officer can remove any vehicle that has been left on a road if it breaches traffic regulations or causes an obstruction. Also, if it appears that a vehicle has been abandoned, the police can also remove it. Often, however, the police investigate abandoned vehicles and report it to the local authority, which will then remove the vehicle under separate powers.

If a driver is suspected of committing an offence and the police haven't stopped the car (e.g. when a car is caught on a traffic camera), the police can ask the keeper of the vehicle to identify the driver. Any other person, including the actual driver, can be asked to give this information. It is an offence not to do so if this information is known.

Police powers to stop

A police officer can stop a vehicle at any time without giving a reason.

Once the vehicle has been stopped, the police can:

  • Ask you for your name and address and, if it is different, the name and address of the owner of the vehicle.
  • Ask for proof of insurance, the vehicle test certificate and your driving licence. If you don't have these documents, the police can ask you to take the documents to a police station within 7 days.
  • Give you a verbal warning and take no further action.
  • Request a breath sample and arrest you if you refuse and they suspect you of drink-driving. Issue a vehicle defect notice requiring you to fix a vehicle defect within a certain time (usually 14 days).
  • Warn you that a prosecution is being considered in cases of dangerous driving or driving without due care and inconsiderate driving; failing to comply with speed limit/traffic sign/traffic direction; dangerous, careless or inconsiderate cycling.
  • Stop you from driving the vehicle if it is in such a poor condition that driving it would be a danger to the public.
  • Arrest you without a warrant, if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you've committed an 'arrestable' offence.
  • Issue a Fixed Penalty Notice - this can also be attached to your car if you're away. It allows you to pay a fixed penalty and avoid the possibility of being made to go to court. If the offence is 'endorsable' (i.e. if it means penalty points will be put on your licence), you must not only pay the fine, but also send your driving licence (and counterpart in Northern Ireland) to the DVLA or the DVA. In Northern Ireland the endorsement will be recorded on the licence counterpart, while in the rest of the UK the endorsement will only be recorded electronically and will not be printed on the licence. You can get an accurate account of your driving endorsements from the DVLA either online, by phone or by post. In both of these cases, you can choose to challenge the charge in court.

See our section on Motoring offences for more information.

If you've been arrested in these circumstances, you can be detained for questioning for up to 24 hours (or more in extreme cases) before being charged. However, you have the right to tell someone about your arrest and get legal advice. If you don't know a solicitor, you can ask for the duty solicitor, whose services are free and independent of the police.

Notice of Intended Prosecution

Under Section 1 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, or Article 5 of the Road Traffic Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, you can't be convicted of certain road traffic offences unless:

  • You're warned at the time of the offence that you could be prosecuted;
  • You're served with a summons within 14 days of the commission of the offence; or
  • You receive a notice of intended prosecution (NIP) within 14 days of the offence. This specifies the offence, and the time and place that it was said to have been committed.

A NIP doesn't need to be issued if, at the time of the offence, an accident occurred as a result of the presence of that vehicle on the road.

Court procedure

If the police don't use their discretion to apply a fixed penalty, or if it's not a fixed penalty offence, or if you want to challenge a fixed penalty charge, court proceedings will follow. Most motoring offences are dealt with at the local magistrates' court.

If the police have decided to prosecute you, a summons will be sent to you within 14 days of the offence. The summons will state the date, time and place that your case will be heard. If the offence isn't very serious, the form will say that you can plead guilty in writing and ask the court to deal with the case in your absence. Before making this decision, it's best to consult either the local Citizens Advice Bureau or a solicitor.

Pleading guilty in writing

If the summons allows you to do so and you want to plead guilty by letter, you must say this on the form. If the offence is endorsable, you must also send in your licence. You must complete a statement of your financial circumstances so that the magistrates can decide on an appropriate level of any possible fine.

When sentencing, the courts will give credit for a guilty plea. This can be as much as one-third off the sentence if there is an early guilty plea. You mustn't plead guilty for the sake of convenience. By pleading guilty, you accept that you've committed the offence. However, you're entitled to ask the court to consider your particular circumstances and reduce the sentence accordingly. This can be done by including a letter in mitigation with your guilty plea.

Tips when writing a letter of mitigation

When writing this letter, consider the following:

  • The letter should be short and to the point.
  • You should say you accept full responsibility and say you regret what you've done.
  • You should say that you're determined not to offend again.
  • If this is your first offence, you should say so. Also mention if you've been driving for a long time.
  • Explain if the offence was out of character.
  • Describe any circumstances that might help to explain why you committed the offence.
  • If the offence is endorsable, describe the effect of penalty points or disqualification, for example, on your employment. Some people such as doctors and midwives might need a car to do their job.
  • If applicable, you should say that you would appreciate time to pay the fine.

Remember that you aren't saying that you didn't commit the offence. This would be a defence and the court could doubt whether your guilty plea was genuine and might even reject it.

Once the court has considered your arguments, the magistrates or Resident Magistrate will decide the appropriate penalty. They'll tell you their decision and, if you are fined, tell you when and how to pay. Any endorsement or points will be recorded on your electronic record with the DVLA. The exception to this is in Northern Ireland where the endorsement or points will instead be recorded on the counterpart of your photocard driving licence or paper driving licence.

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