Stop and Search- What are my rights?

At Saunders, we understand being stopped, questioned and potentially searched by a police officer can be alarming and often disconcerting. Our expert police action and civil liberties lawyers have created this helpful guide to showcase when, how and why the police might stop you.

The police can legally stop and question you in a number of situations without arresting you. However, the police are required to comply with a strict code of practice and to observe certain laws regarding the way they can act. These are very important to be aware of.

To safeguard your rights, we've put together a brief guide on policing dos and don’ts if they have chosen to stop and search you in a public place.

Who can stop you?

Any police officer can stop you, whether wearing uniform or a plain clothes officer. If they're not in uniform they, by law, must show you their warrant card first before any further interaction.

A Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) can only stop you if in uniform.

What is a stop and account

The police have the jurisdiction to stop you in any public place and ask you to account for yourself, this is very much dependent on the circumstances and situation that they find you in. This line of questioning will most likely include asking you to explain your recent movements, behaviour and reason for being in a selective area.

You do not have to actually stop or answer any questions presented to you, they also cannot use your lack of acknowledgment as a reason to search or arrest you. To do this, they need ‘reasonable grounds.’

What are Reasonable Grounds?

Reasonable grounds for suspicion are the legal test which a police officer must satisfy before they can stop and detain individuals or vehicles.

Firstly, the officer must have formed a genuine suspicion in their own mind that they will find the object that they are searching for on your person.

Secondly, the suspicion from the officer that the object will be found must be legitimate. This means that there is suspicion based on facts, information and/or intelligence which are relevant to the current situation. (A reasonable person would reach the same conclusion based on the same facts and information).

When can a police officer stop and search me?

The intrusion on the liberty of the person stopped or searched must be brief and the location of the search must take place at or near the position of the initial stop.

Laws such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 set out the overall parameters for when an officer can legally stop and search you.

Any officer has the power to perform a stop and search within the remit of ‘reasonable grounds’ as mentioned above. They include but are not limited to the following.

  • Illegal drugs (Class A,B & C) (some substances are allowed to be carried with strict prescriptions given by specialist practitioners)
  • An offensive weapon (a tool made, adapted or intended for the purpose of inflicting physical injury upon another person)
  • Stolen property (dishonestly acquiring property belonging to another, with the intent of permanently depriving the other of it)
  • Possessing a tool that could be used to commit a crime (not being able to give a satisfactory reason to why you are carrying and/ or if you have documented history of violence or destruction of property, this will act as reasonable grounds to potentially search and/or arrest you)

Someone can only be stopped and searched without reasonable ground if it has been approved by a senior officer of the law. Authority for a constable in uniform to stop and search under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 may be given if the authorising officer reasonably believes the following:

  • An incident involving serious violence may take place within the locality of the officer’s given area, and it is expected of them to use their powers to prevent this occurrence.
  • That a person or persons are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons without good reason in any locality in the officer’s police area.
  • An incident involving serious violence has already taken place in the officer’s police area, and/or a dangerous instrument or offensive weapon used in the incident is still being carried by a person in the locality of that police area.

This mostly relates to acts of terror within a certain area. In these cases, you may be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds, to protect the wellbeing of the masses over an individual’s stop and search rights.

What information should the police provide me on a stop and search?

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

  • Their name and assigned police station
  • What they expect to find while searching you
  • The reason they want to search you
  • Information that proves the legality of the search
  • The reason for the search
  • That you can have a record of the search and if that isn't possible, where to get one
  • If they are a plain clothes officer, then a warrant card is required to be shown to you

You should be provided with a copy of the search record at the time of the search. If they are unable to provide a receipt at the time then they have to tell you where to acquire one which will most likely be their police station.

It is always important to make your own record of the stop, this includes:

  • Time and date
  • Officer's name and badge number
  • Location
  • What happened during, before and after the occurrence.

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 require 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 legally be done by an officer of the same sex as you.

The police might ask you to take off an item that you are wearing for religious reasons - for example a veil or turban. If they do, they must take you somewhere out of the public view.

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 signed 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

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.


    How can we help?

    Please fill in the form and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can

    We have partnered with Law Share from JMW Solicitors LLP to refer instructions and clients to them, when we are unable to act. By answering yes to this question, you agree that we may pass your details on to Law Share in such circumstances. You are under no obligation to instruct JMW Solicitors LLP after being referred. We may receive a payment from JMW Solicitors LLP further to this referral.