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Stop and Search – 10 things you need to know

Under the sus law (s.4 Vagrancy Act) police in England & Wales had the power to search anyone in a public place who they suspected of intending to commit an offence. This power was used to target black and ethnic minority communities and many say contributed to the race riots of the 1980s that occurred all over the country. The law was repealed in 1981 following successful campaigns that highlighted the racist abuse of the power.

Section 1 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 was introduced shortly afterwards, which aimed to standardise the use of stop and search. However, today black people are still at least six times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. There is no robust evidence to suggest black people account for a greater proportion of crime to justify this disparity and the problem has been recognised by Theresa May.

Stop and search is an incredibly inefficient use of police man power and the damaging effect on police relations with some communities is huge. Police time is wasted carrying out stop and searches (which rarely result in a positive search) when it could be used to investigate serious crimes. People within communities that are effected by stop and search may be more likely to carry out vigilante justice and less likely to cooperate with police, owing to the lack of trust in the police to protect them.

The majority of stop and searches in public are under s.1 PACE. The following key points about stop and search relate to searches under this power.

  1. You do NOT have to provide your name when you are stopped and searched. Unless the police reasonably believe you are acting anti-socially . If an officer asks for your name, ask under what power they are entitled to know your name.
  2. The police can search you or your car if they have reasonable suspicion that you are in possession of controlled drugs, stolen goods or weapons (including fireworks). Reasonable suspicion means it must be based on objective evidence, for example intelligence or evidence. It cannot be based on the officer’s personal opinion or instincts, stereotypes or prejudice.
  3. The fact that you have previous convictions is not a lawful ground to search you. Neither is the fact that you are young or because of your ethnicity or the way you dress. However, the police CAN search you if you are wearing items of clothing or other items (i.e. bandana) that a “gang” uses to identify its members and that “gang” is known (through reliable information or intelligence) to carry weapons or drugs.
  4. The police can only search your outer garments, including the pockets of the outer clothing and or feel around the inside of your collar, socks or shoes. If the police want to search anything other than your outer garments you must be taken to a police van or somewhere else private.
  5. The extent of the search must not be excessive. For example, if you are being searched for weapons, it would not normally be reasonable for police to search inside your wallet.
  6. The police must provide you a record of the search at the time or a receipt that will enable you to obtain the record within three months of the search. It is important to obtain this so that you can log a complaint, if you feel that the search was unlawful or the police were unacceptably rude or disrespectful. (You can log a complaint at Sean Rigg Project in South London). It could also be relevant if you are charged with an offence following the search. Make sure the officer’s name and shoulder number are recorded on the record.
  7. The police can search children under 10 years old, even though there would be no power to arrest that child if anything prohibited or stolen was found.
  8. The police must tell you before you are searched; 

    a) their name
    b) the police station they are attached to
    c) what the reasonable suspicion is that you are in possession of stolen or prohibited items
    d) what they are searching for (i.e. drugs, weapons or stolen items)
    e) the fact that you are detained
    f) that you are entitled to a copy of the search record.
    g) If the officer is in plain clothes they must tell you that they are police and show you ID.

    If an officer does not tell you all of these things the search is likely to be unlawful even if you haven’t asked for this information.

  9. The police CAN use reasonable force, as a last resort to detain you and carry out the search. If you are not resisting or obstructing the search and the police use force against you this is unlikely to be deemed reasonable.
  10. You CAN film the police and the search. The only exception is where the police believe that the video will be used for purposes of terrorism . It might be a good idea to get someone else, for example a friend who is not being searched or a member of public to film. Be aware that both you and anyone else filming or observing must not do anything that obstructs the police. This means no one should do anything that makes the task of the police more difficult to carry out their lawful duty. Anyone filming should stand out of the police’s way. If you are going to film the incident yourself, explain calmly that you are going to take your phone out to film and then slowly do this, without sudden movements.

It is important to film stop and search incidents. It may provide good evidence to assist you if you are arrested, or if you wish to pursue a complaint or claim against the police. It may also deter police, who are less likely to undertake an unlawful search when they are being recorded.

This blog has been adapted from talks created and delivered to young people in a school, youth offending services and youth projects.

The author of this blog is Elena Papamichael who has left the firm. If you have a question about the issues raised in this blog, please contact the Criminal Defence team on 0808 252 5231.