What Happens to Property Seized by the Police? High Court Guidance

The police seize all sorts of property in the course of their criminal inquiries, some of it of great value, and the question of what should happen to it thereafter raises some far from straightforward legal issues. In a guideline case, the High Court considered the fate of a hoard of antique firearms said to be worth up to £500,000.

Antique or obsolete firearms can be converted for use in the present day and, over a six-year period in London alone, they featured in 70 shooting incidents, including seven murders. The hoard was seized from the home of a man who was later convicted of possessing prohibited weapons and ammunition.

He received a seven-year prison sentence but no order was made at the time that the firearms should be forfeited or destroyed. Shortly after his release from jail, he requested the return of the firearms but was met with refusal by the relevant police force.

Having received a prison sentence of over three years, he was barred by Section 21(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 from taking possession of the firearms himself. He proposed, however, that they be delivered up to a registered firearms dealer who would sell them on his behalf. On that basis, a district judge granted him an order under Section 1(1) of the Police (Property) Act 1897 requiring the force to return his property.

In upholding the force’s appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that a six-year time limit applies to such proceedings. The man had left it too late to seek return of the firearms and, by operation of Section 3 of the Limitation Act 1980, his title to them was extinguished on expiry of the deadline. The district judge’s ruling was therefore premised on the mistaken view that he continued to own the firearms.

The Court found that delivering up the firearms to the registered dealer would in any event offend against the statutory prohibition on the man having possession of the firearms himself. On the assumption that the man owned the firearms, he could have instructed the dealer to transfer possession of them to any person, including himself. The dealer would thus have taken possession of the firearms as the man’s agent and at his direction.

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