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What is required by police when executing a search warrant?

19 June 2020
Police officers had not breached the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 s.16(7) when executing a search warrant. The warrant had been lawfully obtained and, in the absence of someone present who appeared to be in charge of the premises, had been left in a prominent place on the premises.

The recent decision in (1) Westminster College of Computing Ltd (2) Arasaratnam Arasilango v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2020] EWCA Civ 56 explored police officers obligations under sections 15 and 16 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 ("PACE") when executing a search warrant at the Westminster College of Computing ("the College"). 

This circumstances surrounding this case began back in 2008, when the police, suspecting the College of having committed immigration offences, entered and searched the College premises and the Director's home, pursuant to warrants issued under PACE. Although various items were seized including computers, telephones, documents and correspondence, no prosecutions followed and most of the seized property was eventually returned. 

The College claimed that as a result of the search, the business had collapsed and they brought proceedings for conversion and trespass to land and goods. It was alleged that the search of the College was unlawful. 

Initial Proceedings
Section 15(1) sets out that if a search of a premises does not comply with s.15 and s.16 of PACE then it shall be unlawful. Specifically, it was argued that the Defendant had breached s.16(6) which requires the warrant to be given to the person in charge of the premises. The College argued that the warrant should have been given to the lecturer who was present at the College during the search, but the Defendant argued that the lecturer was not the person in charge of the premises, nor had he claimed to be. Instead, and pursuant to s.16(7), the Defendant had left a copy of the warrant in a prominent place (on a desk in the College's reception).  

Given the Defendant's argument, the Claimants sought to amend their Particulars of Claim to include that the Defendant had breached s.16(7) by not leaving a copy of the warrant in a prominent place. The Master refused this application and subsequently granted Summary Judgment in favour of the Defendant. 

High Court
The Judge held that Summary Judgment was right to be granted in favour of the Defendant. The Claimants had no real prospect of establishing a breach of s.16(6) or s.16(7) 

The Claimants were permitted to appeal to the Court of Appeal on one point, namely that the Judge had erred in finding no triable issue as to whether, in compliance with sections 15(1) and 16(7) of PACE a copy of a search warrant had been left in a prominent place in the College when it was executed. 

Court of Appeal
It was held that the Judge had been entitled to conclude that there was no real prospect of the Claimants establishing a breach of s.16(7). Evidence from both police documentation and the officers themselves that the warrant had been placed in a prominent place was enough for the Judge to conclude that the Claimants' evidence did not give rise to a realistic prospect of them proving a breach. Both warrants had been lawfully obtained and issued, each included a schedule identifying the premises authorised to be searched, and there was no reason to doubt whether the officers conducting the search had all the necessary documents with them. In particular, they made a contemporaneous note, and the warrant recorded that a copy had been left in the reception area of the College. There was nothing to undermine that argument from the Claimants. An assertion by the Director that he had not seen the warrant when he entered the College three weeks after the search was not sufficient to undermine the record. The Claimants' s.16(7) argument therefore could not have succeeded had it been pleaded. 

The wider issue of whether the suggested breach of section 16(7) would render unlawful the entry and search of the College, and the seizing of items from the College did not fall to be determined. What impact a breach of section 16(7) would have is an important issue, and the Police must wait for this to be tested in another case.

Author: Adam Hartridge and Rose Silvester

Further Reading