“Stop and Search”

Stops & Searches

“Stop and search” is different to “stop and account” where officers can stop you in order to ask you to account for your behaviour or your presence in a certain place at a certain time. For more information about both of these, see:

Stop Account Factsheet (pdf)

Stop Search Factsheet (pdf)

There is no general right for the police to stop and search you, so ask them what power they are using to do so. They cannot (legally) stop and search you just because you are young, from an ethnic group, part of a protest or because of how you are dressed (unless you fit the description of someone suspected of a crime nearby) for example.

During the search, the police are only allowed to carry out a ‘pat-down’ search and you are only required to remove outer clothing (jackets, gloves, etc.) when in a public place. They can also search your vehicle or bags. The pat-down search of your body should be done by an officer of the same gender as you.

It is important to note that under NO search power do you have to give your details (this does not include “Schedule 7” at ports and borders – see separate information – and if you are the driver of a vehicle – see “Giving Your Details” under the “Criminal Law” tab). You also do not have to be actively compliant or let them take photos of you. They don’t have any power to take DNA samples during a search.

Conduct of a search:

Police should tell you their name, badge number (or warrant number if stopping you under the Terrorism Act) and police station. They should inform you that you are entitled to a copy of the form they will write out (if it’s not practicable to do so on the spot, you can go to the police station within 12months to get a copy). They must tell you what the object of the search is (what they are looking for and the power they are using) and their grounds for suspecting you.

Search powers:

Under normal circumstances, the police have no right to search you. The situations when they can search you are:

  • If they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that you are carrying stolen or prohibited articles, or articles with a sharp point or blade (which it is illegal to carry). Prohibited articles are offensive weapons (articles made or adapted for causing injury or carried with the intention of causing injury) and articles made or adapted for use in committing burglary, theft, fraud or criminal damage, or carried with the intention of committing these offences. They can also search your vehicle. This power is Section 1 of PACE (Police And Criminal Evidence Act). The police can seize items they have found on you, but are not entitled to read your personal information.
  • Police may search anyone they reasonably suspect to be a terrorist for evidence that they are a terrorist. The police can seize anything that is evidence of this. This power is Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

If a senior officer approves the following powers in a specific area for a specific period, the police don’t need grounds to suspect you as an individual:

  • Section 60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 – If this authorisation is in effect, police can stop and search anyone they wish (including drivers, their vehicles and their passengers) in the area covered for offensive weapons and articles with a sharp point or blade only. This authorisation can only be issued by an officer of the rank of inspector or above and can only be put in place for 48 hours in total. The authorisation should only be issued if the police reasonably believe that there is a risk of serious violence or that people are carrying offensive weapons, but in practice they are handed out quite often. The police are not entitled to read or record personal information. If a S60 or 60AA order is in place, they can require you to remove any item they think you are using to conceal your identity (face mask, etc.) and can arrest you if you refuse (it is not an offence in general to wear a face mask, just to refuse to hand it over if required to do so by an officer). Face paint is not an item and they can therefore not demand that you remove it.

The main thing to remember is that unless Section 60 is in place, the police must have reasonable suspicion that you are carrying something you shouldn’t be carrying before they can search you. Many searches of protesters are carried out unlawfully. For example, in 2009 officers searched every activist at the Camp for Climate Action under Section 1 of PACE. This was ruled unlawful because the officers did not have reasonable suspicion about each and every activist . You should always challenge the police officer searching you. Ask them what power they are searching you under and their reasons for searching you. If they are searching you under Section 1 of PACE, ask them what they suspect you are carrying and their grounds for suspecting you.

You do not have to give your details if you have been stopped and searched – the police will ask you anyway – but the police should give you a record of the stop and search, complete with their details and the reasons for the search. It can be useful to film all interactions with the police and the events leading up to your conversation.

The various laws mentioned above will be written out in more detail in separate articles.