A judge has told the police they cannot stop people in the street and search them simply because of the way they look.

Judge Phil Gittos says such searches breach the Bill of Rights Act.

In a landmark written ruling, Judge Gittos found the police breached the act when they searched Chris Fowlie, the president of pro-cannabis organisation Norml, and arrested him for having a small amount of cannabis.


A spokeswoman for the police said last night that they would respect the judgment.

It could lead to a review of how much evidence was needed to stop and search people.

Don Mathias, an expert in criminal defence law, said the ruling was significant.

"It shows how the police are acting unreasonably when they require people to account for their presence in a public place in circumstances where there is no indication that they are doing anything unlawful."

Green MP Nandor Tanczos, who is Fowlie's business partner in The Hempstore Aotearoa, said the ruling was an important legal finding for civil rights in New Zealand.

"This ruling is a major challenge to the police practice of targeting and searching certain members of the public for no good reason and confirms that police in this country routinely and arbitrarily stop and search people for no reason other than how they look," he said.

Judge Gittos said the police had no reason to suspect Fowlie and a friend were doing anything illegal when Fowlie was arrested on Karangahape Rd in Auckland at 1.30 am in June last year.

The two friends were saying goodbye after meeting for coffee when they were approached by two members of a team policing unit.

A member of the unit, Constable Karen Hoshek, told the court on February 8 that the police were engaged in a "sweep" of Karangahape Rd to speak to people "to find out what they are doing".

She said that as she approached Fowlie she noticed a strong smell of cannabis.

Judge Gittos said the circumstances left an "uncomfortable perception" that the police were "engineering opportunities to conduct personal searches of persons minding their own business in a public street at random or on a purely speculative basis.

"It needs hardly be said that such conduct would manifestly contravene the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act."

The judge also criticised the police for using the smell of cannabis as the sole grounds for searching Fowlie.

The charge against Fowlie, of possessing 0.7g of cannabis, barely enough for half a joint, was dismissed.

Fowlie said the ruling was an excellent decision because it upheld the rights and freedoms of everyone, especially those stereotypes who were regularly hassled by the police.

"It will make the police job a little bit harder, but it makes them better as policemen because it means they are protecting people instead of creating situations like this."