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Protesters – top ten things you should know about your rights

Whether you are demonstrating for a political cause or taking action because of concerns about the environment,it is important you know your rights, particularly if you are involved in protests with a heavy police presence. Over the years there have been a number of changes to the tactics used by police, to the laws governing public order and human rights as well as to rights relating to your personal data. Here are ten things you should know:

  • Although not absolute, you have a right to protest. While the police may impose conditions on demonstrations such as requiring them to take place in a certain location, these conditions will not be lawful if they unjustifiably restrict rights to freedom of expression and / or freedom of assembly. However, ‘kettling’ can be lawful and challenges in the courts have not been successful to date.
  • Police powers of search are limited. Unless a “section 60” is in place the police must have specific reasons for suspecting you of carrying prohibited items (e.g. weapons, drugs or stolen goods). For the search to be lawful, they must provide you with their name, their shoulder number or police station, the law they are using, reasons for the search and what they are looking for.
  • Searches of protesters who are not reasonably suspected of carrying prohibited items are only permitted under a section 60 of the Criminal and Public Order Act 1994. Section 60 orders can be put in place when a senior officer (Inspector or above) reasonably believes that incidents involving serious violence may take place and / or that persons are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons. Searches should be limited to checking for prohibited articles and not, for example, looking at identification documents.
  • The police may ask you to remove a face covering. They only have the power to do so when a Section 60 order is in place and they reasonably believe an item is being worn wholly or mainly to conceal identity. Failure to remove a face covering on request in these circumstances is an offence.
  • You are not obliged to give your name and address when stopped and searched. You may well be asked for these details by police but under most circumstances have no obligation to provide them, unless an officer believes that you are acting, or have been acting, in an anti-social manner.
  • Not giving your name and address on arrest could extend the length of your detention. Although you are entitled to wait until you are at the police station custody desk to provide these details, the delay may help the police to justify detaining you for a longer time than they would otherwise have done. While you do not have to answer further questions, it is advisable to tell the custody sergeant about any medical conditions or injury, particularly if this was caused by the police.
  • You should make a note of what police tell you when they arrest you. If they do not tell you that you are under arrest, explain what offence you are being arrested for and give you the caution, as soon as it is practicable, the arrest is likely to be unlawful.
  • If you are arrested for all but a few very minor offences, the police have the right to take your fingerprints, a photograph and a DNA sample. These can be taken by force if you do not consent. If you have no previous convictions and are not charged or found not guilty then these shouldbe destroyed after three years at most. It is possible to ask for your details to be removed sooner in exceptional cases, either as part of a settlement in a civil claim or by writing direct to the police.
  • Mass arrest and blanket bail is an emerging tactic used by police. In many cases protesters are bailed to return to a police station pending a decision on charge, with only a handful of those originally arrested going on to be charged and with stringent conditions such as prohibitions on returning to a certain geographical area, and / or on attending protests. Where the conditions are unreasonably wide or strict, you can request that the police vary them and / or apply to the Magistrates’ court for a variation.
  • Recent years have seen increasing concern that protesters’ details are being added to databases of “domestic extremists” even where they have never been arrested and or convicted. You can find out what details, if any, are held about you by making a request to the Metropolitan Police under the Data Protection Act 1998 and asking for details held on the three main databases: the National Police Order Intelligence Unit; the CO11 Public Order Intelligence Unit; and CRIMINT.