Police Stop and Search-Know Your Rights!

In Information, Privacy on May 29, 2006 at 12:37 pm

Over the past couple of years in the UK, laws have been introduced which allow the Police to stop and search anyone in a public place if they believe there is good reason to do so. They can also search your car, wether or not you are in it! Many believe this is a huge invasion of privacy and civil rights. The police and government state that it is in the interests of national security.

Though these proceedures have attracted much publicity, much less is known about the rights of the individual. The police can only stop and search you if they have reason to do so. This can include, for example:

  • As part of anti-terrorism efforts
  • If they think you’re carrying a weapon or drugs
  • If there has been serious violence or disorder in the vicinity
  • If they are looking for a suspect who fits your description

The police will only stop and search in public areas. Usually this happens in more crowded places such as football grounds, bus, train and subway stations, large public gatherings and around the houses of Parliment. But it can be anywhere, at anytime.

You may be stopped and not nescessarily searched (this is called a “stop”). In this instance, the police officer may ask you your name, address and where you are going. You do not have to give these details unless you are arrested, but in order not to be accused of obstructing the course of justice, it is obviously best to be polite!

If the police want to search you, you cannot refuse to let them do this! If nescessary, the officer can use force to search you. They will also check the contents of your bag, pockets, wallet, etc. to ensure you are not carrying illegal weapons, substances or anything which could be related to terrorism. You will be asked to remove at least your coat/outer clothing. If a more thorough search is needed to search for concealed articles, you will be taken to a more private place and searched by a member of the same sex as yourself.

When stopped and searched, the officer responsible is obliged to explain the reasons for stopping you and the law under which they are doing this. This may be one of the following:

  • Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984
    Section 1 of PACE is the most commonly used power and gives the police power to stop and search people and vehicles for stolen goods and offensive weapons on the basis of reasonable suspicion.
  • Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
    Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives police the right to search people in a specific area at a specific time when they believe, with good reason, that there is the possibility of serious violence or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon.
    This law is used mainly to tackle football hooliganism and gang fights.
  • Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000
    Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives police the power to search people for equipment that could be used to commit a terrorist act. Police can search anybody anywhere under this law, and they do not need reasonable suspicion to do so. It is under this law that police conduct random searches in train and tube stations.

You should also be given reason why you are being stopped, the officer’s name, identification number and the station which they operate from. The officer should ensure that the search does not take up much of your time and also should address any concerns that you may have. At the end of the search, you should be given a form which details all of this information to keep for your own records. It should also include contact information from which you should be able to obtain any further information you may require and who to complain to if you feel you have been treated unreasonably.

As part of the search, you will be asked to identify your ethnic identity which should be used by the police to ensure that no particular ethnic group is particularly targeted. Of course, you do not have to give this information, but if you don’t, the police will guess your ethnic identity which may not accurately describe your background.

If you are stopped in your vehicle, you may be asked for information about where you are travelling to and from, and also about your passengers, You may be asked to produce your driving lisence and other documents relating to your vehicle too, which if you do not have to hand, you will be required to produce at a police station within 7 days. The police can also search the entire vehicle, including the boot for any illegal artefacts or anything relating to a crime.

Your vehicle can also be searched while you are not present (so long as it is parked in a public place!). A form should be left with details of the search, and compensation can be obtained for any damage done to your vehicle as long as no evidence of criminal activity has been found.

What concerns me most about these procedures is that such powers may easily be abused, especially when the individual is unaware of their rights. If you are stopped and searched, a record will be kept of the search wether or not you are convicted of a crime! Also, you may have something in your posession which in itself may not nescessarily be illegal or dangerous (for example, a penknife, unofficial music CD or foreign cigarettes), but which could lead to your being held in suspicion of commiting a crime!

Of corse, “Stop and Search” is done in the interests of public safety and national security, but it is always better to know your rights and how these procedures affect you.

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