Stop and search – a quick guide to police powers

Being stopped by the police can be unexpected, frightening and sometimes confusing. Our expert police action and civil liberties lawyers have created a quick guide to when and how the police can stop you.

The police can legally stop and search you in a number of situations without arresting you. However, the police are required to adhere to a strict code of practice and some laws in regards to their behaviour which it's important to be aware of. To ensure that you know your rights, we've created a brief guide on what the police can and can't do if they choose to stop and search you in a public place.

Who can stop you?

Any police officer can stop you, whether wearing uniform or plain clothed. If they're not in uniform they must show you their warrant card first. A Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) can only stop you if in uniform.

Stop and account:

The police have the authority to stop you in a public place and ask you to account for yourself. This could include asking you to account for your actions, behavior, possessions or reasons for being in a particular area. Although you're obliged to answer these questions, you don't need to provide any personal details, such as your name or address. The police aren't required to make a record of stopping you or to provide you with a receipt.

Stop and search:

Whilst the police have the power to stop and search any person in a public space, this is very much dependent on the circumstances and situation that they find you in. Laws such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 set out the circumstances when an officer can legally stop and search you. In most cases the police can only search you if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that you are concealing any of the following:

    • stolen goods


    • drugs


    • an offensive weapon


    • any article made or adapted for use in certain offences, for example a burglary or theft


    • knives


    • items which could damage or destroy property, such as cans of spray paint.


The only time the police can stop and search you without having reasonable grounds for suspicion is if a violent incident has recently occurred in the area.

Before a search can begin, the police must provide you with:

    • proof of their warrant card


    • information on police powers to stop and search


    • information on your rights


    • the police officer's name and police station


    • the reason for the search


    • what they think they might find when they search you


You should be provided with a copy of the search record at the time of the search.

However, if you aren't you can request a copy within three months from the date of the search.

What kind of search can the police perform?

Whilst searching somebody in a public place the police can only ask you to remove your outer layer of clothing, which includes your coat, jacket or gloves. They may also put their hands in the pockets of your outer clothing, feel around your collar, socks and shoes or search your hair.

If the police request you to remove any more clothing this must be done in a private place, such as in the back of a police van or at a police station. A strip search should only generally be carried out at a police station and must be done by an officer of the same sex as you.

Where can the police perform a Stop and Search?

The police can stop and search you in any public space. This means that they can't search you in your own home or garden, or somebody else's home or garden, without a warrant. However, in the event of having reasonable grounds for thinking that you are trespassing without the knowledge or permission of the homeowner, they can stop and search you on private property.

Anti-Discrimination Legislation

The police are bound by anti-discrimination laws which means it is unlawful for the police to discriminate against you based on;

    • Age


    • Disability


    • Race or ethnicity


    • Religion


    • Sex


    • Gender reassignment


    • Sexual orientation


    • Pregnancy


What should you do if you are stopped and searched?

If you are stopped you should record the details of the officers and what happened:

    • Time and date


    • Officer's name and badge number


    • Location


    • What happened?


Was the search lawful?

If you believe the police searched you without reasonable grounds for suspicion, if you think that you may have been discriminated against based on any of the above or if you believe the police have acted unlawfully, you may be able to bring legal proceedings against them.

Our expert team of police action, civil liberties and human rights lawyers and solicitors are acknowledged as leaders in this field. They are always happy to discuss your concerns about an incident involving the police. Feel free to call them on 0207 632 4300.


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