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How Long Can Police Hold Your Property Without Charges in the UK?

by | Jun 20, 2024 | Articles, Crime

With police investigations for alleged criminal offences, one question frequently arises: “How long can the police hold your personal property without formal criminal charges?” This concern is particularly relevant and common for those who find themselves entangled in criminal allegations in the United Kingdom. Understanding your rights and the legal processes involved can be crucial in appreciating the complexity of such situations effectively. This article aims to shed light on the procedures, timelines, and options for reclaiming your property held by the police.

How Property is Retained by the Police

When the police seize property, it typically falls under one of several legal provisions. The most common include the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), and various other statutes depending on the nature of the alleged offence.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)

PACE grants the police authority to seize property that may amount to evidence of an offence or obtained through illegal means. The key sections of PACE relevant to property seizure and retention are Section 19, Section 20, and Section 22. Section 19 allows an officer to seize property if they believe it is evidence, while Sections 20 and 22 govern the retention of this property for investigation or criminal proceedings.

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA)

POCA focuses on property that represents the proceeds of crime. Under this Act, the police can seize assets believed to be the result of criminal conduct. The initial retention period under POCA is often shorter, however extensions can be granted by a Court if deemed necessary for ongoing investigations.

Computers & Mobile Phones

Computers, laptops, iPads and mobile phones are a common part of everyday personal and working life, and it is becoming increasingly common for the Police to seize such items when investigating a person for a criminal offence.

Whether such items will be relevant to a Police investigation will initially depend upon the alleged offence.

As an example, if the Police are investigating a person for assaulting a stranger outside a pub/nightclub, in such an investigation it will not usually be necessary to seize a suspect’s computers/laptops because those devices are no relevant to the investigation. In this type of investigation, the Police will focus on obtaining witness statements and establishing where there is CCTV of the alleged incident.

However, if the Police are investigating allegations such as stalking, harassment, rape, indecent images, perverting the course of justice, death by careless driving and malicious communications it is likely that the Police will seize electronic devices as evidence.

The reason for this is that in some of the examples mentioned above, the suspect and alleged victim may know one another and the data contained on a person’s mobile / computer may contain evidence that the Police / CPS may rely upon in order to bring formal criminal charges.

As an example, if a person is arrested for stalking his / her ex-partner, the suspect’s mobile phone and computer are sized which contain videos and pictures of the alleged victim taken in secret, this evidence would be used by the Police / CPS to build their case, without this evidence they may not issued formal charges due to insufficient evidence.

Another example could be in a case of causing death by careless driving. A driver of a vehicle is involved in a serious road traffic collision resulting in the death of another person. The driver is then investigated and his / her mobile phone reveals that they were sending WhatsApp messages to a friend whilst driving, this evidence would strengthen the prosecution case and this is the reason why a mobile phone would usually be examined in such matters.

Work Property

It is becoming increasing common for people working for an employer to be provided with work property such as a work mobile phone and / or a work laptop. If you have been arrested for an offence where evidence may be on digital devices, the Police will usually also seize work property (mobile phones and laptops) for forensic analysis. The reason for this is because such devices may also contain potential evidence that assists the Police in their investigation.

This clearly causes difficulties for the person being investigated as the employer will question why the employee no longer has the device. In such circumstances, a person will need to explain that the item(s) in question have been seized by the police for analysis.

Timeframes for Police Holding Property

The length of time the Police will retain your property will usually depend upon the number of allegations and how serious the allegations are.

In more complex and serious cases, the Police will usually conduct a much more in-depth investigation which will ultimately mean that the property is retained for a much longer period.

In less serious allegations, some Police Officers may decide to peruse the device(s) themselves and if the devices contain nothing of evidential value, the investigation will usually be concluded much sooner and the property may be returned much sooner. The risk with officers taking this approach is that there can be hidden files/folders on such devices that are not visible to an untrained and unskilled ICT technician. It is for this reason that most Police Officers will send such devices off for a full forensic analysis.

Over the past few years, electronic devices have been used by the Police / CPS as a key point of evidence as they tend to contain images, videos, emails, messages, notes and files which may support the Police / CPS case, the increase in the Police sending such devices off for a full technical analysis has resulted in a significant backlog for devices to be analysed and now from the point of the Police sending the device off, usually takes in the region of 18 months for a report to be produced.

Once the forensic report for the device has been received, if the Police are considering a formal charge, the file will then be sent to the CPS for review and that process can also take several months.     

Getting Your Property Back

The process of reclaiming your property can be intricate and requires a solid understanding of the legal framework. Here’s what you need to know:

Requesting the Return of Your Property

If you believe your property should no longer be held, you can make a formal request to the police. This request should be in writing, outlining why you believe the property should be returned. It is advisable to seek legal advice when drafting this request to ensure all relevant points are covered.

If your matter is still under investigation, the Police are unlikely to release your property because your property may amount to key evidence in the prosecution.

Police Response and Decision

The police are required to respond to your request, although the timeline for this response can vary. If the police deny your request, they should provide reasons. Often, property is retained until the conclusion of an investigation or any related criminal proceedings.

Applying to the Court

If the police refuse to return your property, you can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for its return. The court will consider whether the property is still needed for investigation or as evidence in ongoing or potential criminal proceedings.

If You Are Not Charged

If no charges are brought against you, the retention of your property by the police becomes particularly contentious.

Initial Seizure and Retention

Initially, the police can hold property for a reasonable period while determining whether charges will be brought. This period is generally up to 28 days but can be extended if a court order is obtained.

Requesting Return After No Charges

Once it is clear that no charges will be brought, you should formally request the return of your property. If the police still refuse, citing ongoing investigations or other reasons, you have the right to challenge this decision through legal channels.

If the Police have decided not to bring formal charges, in the majority of cases, the property will be returned however it can often take several weeks or even months for the investigating officer to eventually return your property.

Legal Recourse

If your property is not returned and no charges are filed, you can apply to the court for its return. The court will assess whether the police have reasonable grounds to continue holding your property. If not, the court can order the police to return it.

If You Are Charged

If after the Police investigation, you are charged with a criminal offence and the property in question amounts to key evidence for the CPS case, it will not usually be released until after the conclusion of the Court case.

This does however depend upon the allegation and the specific property. As an example, if a person has been prosecuted for indecent images found on their laptop and they require the return of their jewellery, such evidence may be released by the Police because it is not relevant to the prosecution. However, if in the same example, the Defendant required their laptop to be returned, this clearly would not be returned as it would amount to a key exhibit as it would contain the alleged indecent images.

Conclusion

Navigating the complexities of property retention by the police can be daunting, especially when compounded by the stress of legal investigations. Understanding your rights and the legal processes involved is essential. Whether you are in prison, not charged, or awaiting the return of your property, having a knowledgeable solicitor on your side can make a significant difference.

Do you require legal advice &/or representation?

If you are facing a criminal or driving offence prosecution and require expert legal representation at Court, call our lawyers on 0330 818 9843 or complete our Contact Form.

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