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The law on seizing motor vehicles

The circumstances in which a car can be impounded are more common than is generally realised, and it is also surprising how many authorities and individuals have the power to do it.

Motor insurance infringements

Under section 165a of the Road Traffic Act 1998, the police can seize a motor vehicle which is being used without valid insurance. Modern technology, such as the Motor Insurance Database, makes it much easier for the police to check up instantly on any car they believe to be uninsured, so this is becoming increasingly common.

Driving offences

However, the powers of the police to seize a vehicle extend much further; under the provisions of section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which came into effect on 1st January 2003, they can also impound it if they consider that it is being used in a way that causes 'alarm, harassment or distress'. This could include a wide range of circumstances such as aggressive or even careless driving.

Drink and drugs

It is common for a vehicle to be impounded if the driver has failed a roadside breathalyser test or is suspected of being under the influence of drugs. In Scotland, a driver who is convicted of a second drink-drive offence risks having their car confiscated permanently, and there has been pressure from road safety campaigners for the government to introduce a similar law in England and Wales.

Parking violations

The police will impound a car that is causing a serious obstruction. In general, a car should not be seized simply for a single parking offence, but repeated failure to pay parking fines can lead to a car being impounded.

Who can impound a car?

In addition to the police, there are various organisations which can impound a car;

•The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) is allowed to clamp or impound cars in some situations, such as dangerous vehicle defects.
•The local authority can impound a car for causing an obstruction, or if it is abandoned or part of an unauthorised traveller encampment.
•The DLVA can clamp or impound cars which do not have valid road tax.
Authorities such as councils generally employ contractors for the purpose.

Getting a car back from the pound

The Police (Retention and Disposal of Motor Vehicles) Regulations 2002 cover the powers of the police in respect of retention, storage and disposal of seized vehicles. It is not a simple procedure; generally the car's registered keeper has to attend in person with a bundle of papers, which may include a driving licence, and the registration and insurance documents. A release fee will need to be paid, and, if the car has been retained for more than a day, there will also be a storage charge. This, of course, is in addition to any fines that have been incurred if offences were committed.

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