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What are the reasonable grounds the police have to stop & search you?

The police have the power to stop and search you if an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that you have been involved in a crime, or think that you are in possession of a prohibited item. Prohibited items include drugs, weapons and stolen property. Depending on what the police find on you during a search, you could be arrested. As leading criminal defence solicitors we would like to make sure that you are fully advised on your rights.

There are a number of laws which give powers to officers to stop and search the most common are:

  1. Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE Code A), relating to searches for weapons, stolen property, display grade fireworks or items which could be used to commit a crime;
  2. Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, relating to searches for controlled drugs;
  3. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, relating to searches for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments which might be used, or might have been used in incidents of serious violence; and
  4. Sections 43 and 47A of the Terrorism Act 2000, relating to searches for evidence or articles in connection with terrorism (Sections 44-47 of the Terrorism Act 2000 were repealed by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 on 1 May 2012 and replaced by Section 47A.).

Stop and Account

A ‘stop’ occurs when a police officer or a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) stops you and asks questions. This is known as a ‘stop and account’, and is not a stop and search. You are free to leave at any time.

Stop and Search

Do I have to speak to the Police?

In general, you do not have to answer any questions the police ask you. It can be a good idea to use this right, because what you say to the police, no matter when or where, could be used against you.

If you don’t and there’s no other reason to suspect you, then this alone can’t be used as a reason to search or arrest you.

A police officer has powers to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re carrying/that they will find what they are looking for on you (section 2. 4 PACE):

  1. illegal drugs –The College of Policing’s authorised professional practice on stop and search training for police officers states ‘smell of cannabis’ alone is not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion for stop and search.
  2. a weapon
  3. stolen property
  4. something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar

If a police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that you have been involved in a crime or that you are in possession of a prohibited item they can search you. Only a police officer can do this and they can only search your outer clothing. If the officer is not in uniform they should show their identity card to you. You do not have to give your name and address.

You shouldn’t be stopped and searched because of your race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion or faith, the way you dress, the language you speak, or because you have committed a crime in the past.

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds, ‘non reasonable suspicion’ powers, if it has been approved by a senior police officer. This can happen if it is suspected that:

  1. serious violence could take place
  2. you’re carrying a weapon or have used one
  3. you’re in a specific location or area

These searches are known as ‘section 60 searches’ and are authorised under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, The use of this power can only be applied to a specific area for a maximum of 48 hours. And when challenge the police could fall back on Section 50 Police Reform Act 2002.

Section 60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is a power to search for weapons. There is also a power to demand the removal of masks under 60AA of the same act. Neither gives any power to demand a name and address, but as they have to fill out a stop and search form it makes it look more official and tricks many people into giving details when they don’t have to.

If you are stopped and searched you don’t have to give your name and address, whatever type of search is carried out. However, if the police suspect you of committing an offence and you fail to give your name and address then they can arrest you since one of the grounds of necessity for arrest is to ascertain a suspect’s name and address.

Be aware section 50 Police Reform Act 2002 is an Anti-Social Behaviour power. If you are reasonably believed to be committing anti-social behaviour you can be required to give your name and address to a police officer in uniform, it is not sufficient for the police to say that they believe you are ‘going to’ engage in anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour is defined as behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, which is the same as the offence under s5 Public Order Act 1986.

This power is often used by the police on demonstrations.

If you are asked to give your details under section 50 you should ask the police to clarify that they are using their powers under section 50 and ask them what it is that you had done that constitutes anti-social behaviour

The search

We have a further blog which deals with the circumstances in which the police are able to conduct Property Searches (Cars and Homes).

The conduct of the search is stipulated under section 3 PACE, where all stop and searches must be carried out with courtesy, consideration and respect for the person concerned. The officer must also take reasonable steps, if not in uniform, to show their warrant card.

The co-operation of you to be searched must be sought in every case, even if the person initially objects to the search. The police can use ‘reasonable force’ if you try not to be searched, which could lead to you being arrested (s. 3.2PACE).

Importantly before you are searched the police officer should tell you under s 3.8 PACE:

  • That you are being detained for the purpose of a search;
  • Their name;
  • The name of their police station;
  • What they are looking for; and,
  • That you are entitled to have a copy of the search record.

If the police have reasonable grounds the officer must tell you the law that they are going to search you under and give the reasons for the search.

What can a police officer search?

A police officer can ask you to take off your coat, jacket or gloves in public. They can put their hand inside your shoes, socks or headgear if they believe something is hidden. They will ask you to turn your pockets inside out, or they will pat these items down.

The police might ask you to take off other clothes and anything you’re wearing for religious reasons – for example a veil or turban. If they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view. The officer must also provide a reason for needing to search further. The reason cannot be that nothing has been found, yet.

If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you. A more thorough search can take place in the back of a police van or somewhere else that is out of public view.

A strip search can only take place in a police station or a designated area like a police tent. If 17 years old or under a strip search can only take place in the presence of an appropriate adult.

Just a note 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. You must not do anything that obstructs the police. No one should do anything that makes the task of the police more difficult to carry out their lawful duty.
Once searched and next steps.

The police should be polite and respectful throughout. The officer must fill out form giving the reasons for stopping and searching you and give you a copy of this.

The officer must also record the following details:

  • how you describe your ethnic background;
  • the date, time and place you were stopped and searched;
  • why you were stopped or searched;
  • the name and/or number of the officer carrying out the search; and
  • what they were searching for.

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.

Finally, there has been much discussion about whether or not stop and searches work, the reasons behind them and who they are targeted at. Unfortunately we are all too aware of the number of murders across London this year.

The concern that always arises is whether stop and search is really effective or whether it is being misused by police. We as criminal defence lawyers have witnessed instances where the police go beyond their powers when using stop and search. A study by the College of Policing that looked at ten years of data from 2004 to 2014 found stop and search only had a small effect on levels of drug offences and burglary but none at all on violent crime. Many experts are saying the use of stop and search is not an effective tool in tackling violent crime as it fails to address the main root of the problem.

We are also very aware that young people are more concerned about being attacked rather than being stopped with knives or other offensive weapons. I am concerned the officers taking this stance may be having a detrimental effect and could result in increased mistrust of the police.