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I assume (but this isn't necessarily the case) that the police are permitted to break the law in order to enforce it. By break the law, I mean perform acts that would usually be illegal - say, if a private citizen did them - without sanction.

There are some powers that are explicitly granted to the police - for instance, to use a vehicle with sirens and lights - that's not really the point of my question.

For example - but an answer should not be limited to these:

  • When can the police direct another person to commit an illegal act?
  • In what circumstances can the police exceed speed limits or ignore traffic lights/signs?

Yes, they're intentionally broad - I'm hoping at least one answer for this will be detailed and thorough, and contemplate a few examples of situations.

Is this the case? In what circumstances? Do they need written authority to do it in every instance, and/or what kind of authorisation do they need?

For simplicity's (although I doubt it will be) sake, let's limit this question to the United States.

  • I think this is too broad to be answerable. In general when officers exercise 'police powers' they are likely to be doing something that would be unlawful if they were not police officers. – bdsl Nov 19 '15 at 0:54
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    I'm really having trouble understanding what you are looking for here. For example, @DaleM's answer: Never sounds right to me. Police are commonly prosecuted for crimes committed under color of law. So it seems (on its face) the title of this question contains a contradictory and false premise, accordingly. Please rewrite (or rethink) this question to help us better understand what you might be looking for. – Mowzer Nov 25 '15 at 20:40
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The police are never permitted to break the law.

However, the law that gives them their powers may make other laws not applicable to them in the course of their duties. If a law is not applicable to them; how can they break it?

1
  1. When it is in the general interests of public safety. For example, if a road needs to be closed for some reason and police direct traffic the "wrong" way down a one-way street, or go during a red light, that is something that would normally be illegal, but OK for the police to do and instruct others to do. Many states have a general exception to laws, especially traffic laws, that allow police officers to override them.
  2. When they are working undercover. For example, they might buy and sell drugs and be part of making arrangements directing others to do so as well. If the officer tried to use that directly, entrapment might be an issue, but it might just be part of a larger investigation (e.g. building up trust in a bigger effort to catch the kingpin instead of the lower-level dealers).
  3. When there are not effective controls on their behavior. In practice, police often have an effective form of immunity from being convicted of crimes, and they know it, and this can lead to them being permitted in practice to violate laws. Speed limits are probably the most well-known example of this, even when officers are not responding to a call which very urgently requests their presence somewhere.

I hope that's a bit more detailed than the current top answer and "contemplates a few examples of situations" as requested.

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I can't help with the US jurisdiction.

Section 6 of the NSW Police Act 1990 says:

6 Mission and functions of NSW Police Force

(1) The mission of the NSW Police Force is to work with the community to reduce violence, crime and fear.

(2) The NSW Police Force has the following functions:

(a) to provide police services for New South Wales,

(b) to exercise any other function conferred on it by or under this or any other Act,

(c) to do anything necessary for, or incidental to, the exercise of its functions.

(3) In this section:

"police services" includes:

(a) services by way of prevention and detection of crime, and

(b) the protection of persons from injury or death, and property from damage, whether arising from criminal acts or in any other way, and

(c) the provision of essential services in emergencies, and

(d) any other service prescribed by the regulations.

(4) A reference in this section to the functions of the NSW Police Force includes a reference to the functions of members of the NSW Police Force.

(5) The provision of police services in emergencies and rescue operations is subject to the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 and to the Essential Services Act 1988 .

(6) Nothing in this section confers on the NSW Police Force a power to provide a police service in a way that is inconsistent with any provisions applicable to police officers under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002.

S 6(2)(c) "to do anything necessary for, or incidental to, the exercise of its functions" is a very wide grant of powers. Basically they are permitted to do anything except for things they are prohibited from doing or are required to do in a certain way under this Act and the other named Acts. The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 brings in another dozen or so acts. If you read through those (I have only skimmed them); they specifically introduce the common law as part of what is permitted and prohibited.

So, without going through chapter and verse, if something isn't covered by the various statutes and has not become part of the common law by reason of precedent then the common law standard applies: if it is reasonable for them to execute their function of policing then it is legal.

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