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If you've been on a protest before, you may have seen someone being patted down or questioned at the side of the road by a couple of police officers. This is known as a 'Stop and Search' or 'Stop and Account'.
Police use stop powers for a variety of reasons: when they believe it will help them prevent a crime from taking place, whilst investigating a crime that has already taken place, as an information gathering aid to learn more about the event they are policing and the people involved, and as an intimidation tactic and to exert control on a protest.
Police search powers are fairly limited, so knowing the law can be a powerful way of preventing the authorities from gaining any information on you. It goes a long way to counter the intimidating methods and attitudes you may experience when exercising your right to protest.
A key point to remember, is that You NEVER have to give any PERSONAL DETAILS when being searched or held to account. We'll go into more details in the sections below.
Why might I be searched?
The law states that you can only be searched if a police officer has a reasonable belief to suspect that you may be carrying something something illegal or something that can be used to to commit an offence and you are likely to do so. This forms the grounds of the search.
There are two exceptions to this rule, which are known as blanket search powers:
i. if a section 60 search power has been granted.
ii. if a section 47A search power has been granted.
You can be held whilst the search is being facilitated.
What might I be searched for?
Under section 1 of PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984), you can be searched for the following items:
- articles for burglary/theft
- stolen goods
- offensive weapons
- bladed articles
- items that may be used to commit criminal damage
There are other specific laws that allow an officer to search you, but these are rarely used at protests. They include the power to search for drugs or explosives, and along with Section 1 PACE, always require reasonable suspicion.
Under section 43 of Terrorism Act 2000, if the police have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are a terrorist they can search you for evidence that you are indeed a terrorist. A terrorist is defined as someone who uses, or intends to use violence or causes serious damage to property to influence government, or intimidates the public to advance a political, religious or ideological cause. It's a pretty broad definition but we don't hear of it being used very often at protests.
How might I be searched?
The police officer searching you must specify before the search what they are looking for, and tailor the search to suit. This is known as the object of the search. They have the power to search you, your clothes and look through all of your belonging you have with you, although you don't have to be actively compliant when this is taking place. They might ask you a few questions or make small talk during the search - you do not need to answer any of their questions or give any personal details, and can simply answer "No Comment".
I see, but how far can they go?
If you're in a public space, then the officer can only ask you to remove your outer clothing such as a hat and coat, ask you to empty your pockets, and give you a pat down. You can be taken into a private area where the search can be continued with the removal of more items of clothing. Shoes aren't considered outer clothing so should not be removed on the street, but if an officer is intent on looking under your feet then you could just be taken inside a police van.
How do I know if an officer is being reasonable with the search?
We often hear from people unhappy with the way they have been treated during a search. It is good practice to keep an eye on what is being searched to check if the police officer is being reasonable or not. If the object of the search is for bladed articles, then you might expect an officer to start looking through your wallet for small blades, or bank cards that may have had their corners sharpened. If you are being searched for items that may be used to commit criminal damage, then this would depend on the specific item they are looking for. If during the course of a search an officer finds another item upon you that they were not originally looking for, ie. controlled substances (drugs) they can then search you again for more of these items.
I have personal information and correspondence in my wallet / bag
If you have chosen not to give the police any of your personal details, which you are entitled to withhold, then you may not be happy with them reading your private material. If in the course of the search they come across an item with your name on, they may choose to record this as part of a description of you.
To avoid difficult situations, don’t carry any items that can be used to identify you, eg. a driving license or bank card. If you are carrying a phone, lock it! This will prevent officers casually looking through it.
What is a "reasonable suspicion" anyway?
A reasonable suspicion must be evidence based. Eg. if an officer has been informed that a person matching your description, and in the local area, has been seen to commit an act of vandalism ie. graffiti, then they can reasonably suspect that the person described may be you. This allows them to search you for items used to commit criminal damage, in this case spray cans or tins of paint.
Blanket Search Powers
- Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
This is a power put in place by an Inspector, and confirmed by a Superintendent, that allows a police officer to search anyone in a specific area for offensive weapons. The order lasts for 24 hours but can be extended by a Superintendent. This should not be confused with Section 60 AA (see section on Removing Masks below).
- Section 47A of the Terrorism Act 2000 (Remedial) Order 2011.
This is a power put in place by a senior officer in a specific location where s/he reasonably suspects that an act of terrorism will take place, and that the power is necessary to prevent it from occurring. This allows the police to search anyone or anything for the purpose of prevention of terrorism, and replaces the controversial section 44 (TA2000) after it was found to be incompatible with article 8 by the ECHR. This is a temporary power which will be replaced by an article in the "Protection of Freedoms" Bill.
What happens if they find something during the search?
If the police find a item on you that they suspect may be illegal, they can confiscate it. At this point they could choose to arrest you on suspicion of possessing an item that may be illegal, issue you with a fixed penalty notice, or demand your name and address in order to service you with a summons at a later date. A summons is a letter demanding that you attend a police station at a specific time, possibly for a telling off or to be arrested. We recommend you attend with a solicitor, or at the very least get in contact with GBC Legal before hand.
If they find an item on you that they suspect you may use to commit criminal damage, but isn't necessarily illegal, then they may seize the item. The item remains yours and you have the right to collect it at a later date, so ask for a receipt to make this possible and make a note of the police station the item is being taken to, the date/time, and officer's number. The searching officer may suggest that they need your name and address in order to guarantee the item gets back to you. This is simply not true - the officer is responsible for ensuring that your property is well identified regardless of any information you give them.
If you refuse to give your name and address for the purpose of a fixed penalty notice or a summons, then you can be arrested under Section 25 of PACE.
What happens during a Stop and Account?
If you are asked to account for being somewhere, an action, or your behaviour, then you may be asked more questions than during a search. You do not need to answer these questions, and can simply answer "No Comment". The same goes with personal details. If a police officer reasonably believes you are committing a crime then they can arrest you regardless of what you do or don't say.
Police forces are no longer required to record details of Stop and Account, will individually decide whether to issue receipts.
A police officer using section 1 of PACE to search you wouldn't normally have any reason to look through your camera. They have no power that allows them to delete any photos.
If a Section 60AA (Criminal Justice Act 1994) order is in effect, a police officer can demand that any item you are wearing that is mainly used to conceal your identity, is removed. You don't have to be wearing this item at the time for it to be seized. Section 60 and Section 60 AA are different powers, and can be used independently.
A common tactic adopted to contain protest is to kettle everyone, often for hours at a time. When it comes to letting you out, you may be placed in front of a camera and asked for your personal details. They may threaten to place you back inside if you refuse to co-operate, a form a punishment for standing up for your rights. In our experience if everyone refuses to give their details, the police get bored of asking and you're all let out sooner - although this is contrary to what they will tell you.
Getting a receipt
You are always entitled a receipt from a Stop and Search, but no longer from a Stop and Account. If an officer can't provide you with one at the time of the search then they must tell you where you can collect it at a later date. They should make every attempt to provide one immediately unless there is an urgent matter to attend to. We recommend that you push for one - having too many people to search is no excuse!
If you are unhappy with the search procedure, you can later make a complaint. Keep hold of the receipt, it may be useful.
Breakdown of search procedure
There is a set procedure that a police officer must follow when executing a search.
Before any search, you must be told:
- The officer's name and the police station they are based at.
- That you are entitled to a copy of the search form*.
- Object of the proposed search (power being used and what they are searching for).
- Grounds to suspect you, or that a blanket search power has been granted and what it is.
You can then be searched, and it is usual for one officer to search and another to take notes whilst this is going on. This may keep you distracted but always try to focus on what the searching officer is doing, as if the search is unlawful you can later put in a claim.
Police forces are only required to record 7 items of information collected during a Stop and Search; ethnicity, grounds for search, object of search, identity of police officer, date, time and place. There is no longer a statute requirement to ask for your name and address, but we are yet to see this change affect the procedures of police on the beat.
Are you driving a vehicle? Had an accident?
If you're the driver of a vehicle that is being searched or has been involved in a road traffic incident, the police have a specific power to demand your name and address.
This guide has been produced to help you understand the stop and search process so you can make informed decisions when interacting with police officers.
We understand that it can be very difficult to hold the police to account for their actions, particularly when faced with intimating or bullying officers, however we are here to help you bring claims against the officers should they disregard the law.
This guide to stop and search has been adapted from Your Rights on Stop and Search (Activist Legal Project)