This article focuses on primarily whether the police may search a person without a warrant of arrest. On the face of it, it would appear that the search and seizure of a person and premises are in contravention with the Bill of Rights, more specifically section 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
With the enactment of the Constitution, there have been a number of constraints on search and seizure powers by police officials. Section 14(a) of the Constitution specifically protects the right not to have a person or their home searched. A person’s home, it is widely accepted, constitutes the highest expectation of privacy. According to section 36 of the Constitution, rights in the Bill of Rights may be limited by a law of general application, if the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.
The Criminal Procedure Act allows the police to search any person or any container or premise of that person without a search warrant. It also allows the police to seize any article reasonably believed to have been used to commit a crime or that is reasonably believed to be evidence that could assist the state in proving that an offence was committed. This can be done only if the owner gives consent for the search or if the police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that a search warrant would have been issued and a delay in conducting the search would have defeated the purpose of the search and seizure operation.
What this essentially means is that a police officer can search you personally or can search your car or house even when no search warrant was obtained and even when you did not give permission for such a search. However, such a type of search without a warrant can only be executed where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a search warrant will be issued to the relevant police official should he apply for it and that the delay in obtaining such warrant would defeat the object of the search.
According to the relevant case law, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a person committed an offence or that a person is in possession of an article used or to be used in the commission of an offence. A mere assertion by a police officer that he or she had such a suspicion without any evidence to back it up will not do. This means that where a police officer stops you in the street and decides that you are a drug dealer merely because of your appearance, he or she will not be able to merely argue that there is a reasonable suspicion that you committed an offence or are in possession of an article used in the commission of an offence and, hence, will not be entitled to search you.
In terms of the South African Police Act 68 of 1995 the National or Provincial Commissioner may where it is reasonable in the circumstances in order to exercise a power or to perform a function of the service, authorise in writing a member under his command to set up roadblocks on any public road. Any member of the South African Police Service may, without a warrant, search any vehicle at such a roadblock. However, such a search without a warrant in a roadblock may only be conducted upon the written authorisation by the National or Provincial Commissioner of the South African Police Service.
It is of paramount importance that a police official exercise his or her discretion in conducting a search without a warrant carefully and does not infringe a person’s right to privacy as entrenched in section 14 of the Constitution. It is also important to note that a search and seizure by a police official must be reasonable and justifiable in terms of the Constitution.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. (E&OE)