Judges refuse appeal against sheriff’s decision that police search of vehicle for drugs was ‘lawful’

Lord Brodie

A man accused of various drugs offences who challenged the admissibility of certain evidence allegedly recovered following a police search of a vehicle has had his appeal refused.

The Criminal Appeal Court ruled that the sheriff was entitled to conclude that the officers had the necessary “reasonable grounds” of suspicion for stopping and searching the vehicle.

Lord Brodie, Lord Bracadale and Lord Turnbull heard that Ronald Skeet had been indicted for trial before the Sheriff at Ayr on charges of contravention of various provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but he objected to the admissibility of certain evidence allegedly recovered from the vehicle he was driving after he was stopped at a location in Ayr on 9 December 2014.

In order to give rise to the power to stop and thereafter to search a vehicle, under section 23 of the 1971 Act, a constable must have “reasonable grounds” for believing that a person is in possession of a controlled drug.

Following an evidential hearing in March this year, the sheriff held that the police had had such grounds at the relevant time and therefore that the search was “lawful”, but the appellant challenged that decision in this appeal.

Before the sheriff the police spoke to three factors as having given rise to the suspicion which led them to stop the vehicle, these being: (1) the location of the vehicle in an area known to be associated with dealing in drugs; (2) the appearance of the appellant, which was said to be that associated with a drug user; and (3) the actions of the passenger in looking down from the vehicle into the police vehicle.

The officers also spoke to the actions of the passenger after the stop and a disclosure made to them by the appellant.

In considering the reasonableness of the suspicion, the sheriff looked at the information available to the officers prior to the stop of the vehicle.

On behalf of the appellant before the appeal court, it was argued that these matters were “insufficient” to give rise to the necessary “reasonable suspicion”.

He pointed to the fact that the area which the police had said was associated with drug use was wide and very vaguely defined; he said that the appearance of the appellant might apply to many people and he argued that the action of the passenger was entirely neutral as looking at a police vehicle cannot be regarded as a suspicious act unless it is associated with something of the nature of evasive behaviour.

However, having carefully considered the points made on behalf of the appellant, the judges “were not persuaded”.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Lord Brodie said: “In particular, we took the view that the police were justified in attaching significance to the action of the passenger in taking an obvious interest in their vehicle, which could be identified as a police vehicle by its blue light, and to regard that taking of interest as a suspicious circumstance.

“It is to be borne in mind, as the advocate depute submitted, that the decision on the reasonableness of the suspicion spoken to by the police officers was a question of fact and primarily it was a question of fact to be determined by the sheriff. We simply cannot say that he was wrong to decide as he did.”

The appeal was accordingly refused and therefore the judges remitted the matter to be dealt with in the sheriff court.