The Home Secretary announces intention to extend police officers’ ‘stop and search’ powers
The Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced plans to give police officers broader powers to stop and search members of the public. These proposed measures are reported to be intended to address incidents of acid-throwing and to prevent people from carrying laser points and using drones. At present, a police officer can only stop someone they suspect of carrying acid if they have evidence that that person is about to cause an injury.
In 2017, official figures confirmed that, despite overall efforts to reduce the use of stop and search, the racial gap in its deployment was only growing. Incidents of white people being stopped fell by 28%, but for minority ethnic people the fall was only 11%. Black people were eight times more likely than white people to be targeted by police officers under these powers (https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/wp-content/uploads/peel-police-legitimacy-2017-1.pdf).
Police forces have failed to account for the ever-increasing racial disparity. In the circumstances, there are huge concerns about the stated intention to expand officers' powers in a practice which is already known to corrode communities' trust in the police.
When can a police officer stop and search you?
A police officer can stop and search you without arresting you but it is important to be aware of the restrictions on when and how they can lawfully do this.
Any police officer has the ability to stop you, but if they are in plain clothes, they must first show you their warrant card.
A police officer may stop you and ask you to account for yourself, for example, why you are in a certain place or behaving in a certain way, but, if you are on foot, the officer has no power to force you to do so (they would have the power to do this if you were in a car). If you do not stop and there is no other reason to suspect you of being involved in any criminal offence, the fact that you do not stop cannot be used as the basis to then search or arrest you.
Generally, the police are not required to make a record of the fact that they stopped you or to provide you with any documentation about the stop.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), together with its related Codes of Practice, set out the specific situations in which police officers can stop and search a member of the public.
The most commonly used power is that there are "reasonable grounds" for suspecting that you are concealing stolen goods, drugs, an offensive weapon, an article made or adapted for use in a certain offence, knives or items which could be used to damage or destroy property. In accordance with Code A of PACE, to exercise this power lawfully, the police officer's suspicion that they will find the item on you must be honest and must be objectively reasonable, i.e. a reasonable person would be entitled to reach the same conclusion based on the same facts, information and/or intelligence.
Before searching you, a police officer is required to provide you with the following:
Proof of their warrant card
Information on police powers of stop and search
Information about your rights
- His or her name and police station
- The reason for the search
- What item they expect to find as a result of the search
At the time of the search, you should be provided with a copy of the search record. If you do not receive a copy of the search record at the time, you can request a copy at any time within the following three months.
When searching you in public, a police officer can ask you to remove the outer layer of your clothing only. They can put their hands in the pockets of your outer clothing, around your collar, your socks, shoes and hair.
A police officer can only ask you to remove any additional clothing in a private place, i.e. the back of a police van or at a station.
Stop and search powers can only be used in a public place. If you are in your own home or someone else's, the police must have a warrant to search you (unless they have reasonable grounds for suspecting you of trespassing without the knowledge or permission of the homeowner).
It is unlawful and discriminatory for police to stop and search you on the basis of any personal characteristic, such as your age, disability, race or ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment or pregnancy.
Only when a police officer has information or intelligence which includes a description of a person suspected of carrying an item which stop and search powers entitle he or she to search you for (and you match that description), can personal factors can ever support reasonable grounds for suspicion. So stereotypes about a group or category of person cannot be used to form the required "reasonable grounds" for suspicion.
If you are stopped and searched, make sure that you obtain a copy of the search record. Also make your own note of the time and date, the officer's name and badge number, the location and what happened.