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.
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.
To work out if you are being stopped and searched or if it is a stop and account, you can ask the officer: ‘Am I being detained?’ A police officer can only detain you when carrying out a stop and search, so if the answer is ‘no, you are not being detained,’ it is a stop and account and you are free to leave. You do not have to give your name and address.
Stop and Search
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.
The police can use ‘reasonable force’ if you try not to be searched, which could lead to you being arrested.
Before you are searched the police officer should tell you:
- 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 to think that you are in possession of a controlled drug then the officer must tell you the law that they are going to search you under and give the reasons for the search. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s (HMIC) stop and search training for police officers states 'smell of cannabis' alone is not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion for stop and search. Release advocates that this should be legislated for, brought into Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and applied nationwide.
There are other reasons that a police officer may want to search you, but in most cases they must have reasonable grounds to suspect they will find what they are looking for. The exception are searches under ‘non reasonable suspicion’ powers, which can be used where a police officer holding the rank of at least superintendent -- although the voluntary 'Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme', which police forces are signed up to, states authorisation should be given by an Assistant Chief Constable -- has issued an authority for stop and searches to take place without reasonable suspicion due to a belief that serious violence will occur in an area or that people are carrying offensive weapons. 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.
What can an officer search?
The officer can only require a person to remove outer clothing in public e.g. a coat, jacket, gloves or another item concealing your identity. 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.
If they want you to remove any other items of clothing, this is either called a ‘more thorough search’ (e.g. removing a jumper or t-shirt) or a ‘strip search’, which involves the removal of all clothing. 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. A strip search must be done out of public view and by an officer of the same sex, without any officer of the opposite sex able to see. If you are 17 years old or under a strip search can only take place in the presence of an appropriate adult.
The officer must provide a reason for needing to search further. The reason cannot be that nothing has been found, yet.
Removal of any religious items must be treated in the same way as a more thorough search.
If you are uncomfortable, ask for more privacy. If they fail to provide you with this ask them to put this in their records. Stop and search should not be a humiliating experience.
Your right to a copy of the search form
The police should be professional, polite and respectful when searching you. The officer must fill out a form giving the reasons for stopping and searching you and give you a copy of this unless it is not possible to (many forces have digitised this process and will give you a reference number allowing you to retrieve a copy of the form from the police station). You can ask for a copy of the form anytime within 12 months of the search.
Making a complaint
If you think that an officer is carrying out an unlawful search or you are unhappy about their behaviour or attitude, you should let them carry on and get a copy of the search form. You can then make a complaint about the officer’s actions either by telephone, or in writing or at your local police station. Check out StopWatch’s stop and search complaint guide.
Y-Stop – a stop and search project developed by young people, for young people
For advice on stop and search check out Y-Stop, Release’ stop and search project run in partnership with StopWatch. This project was developed over a two-year period with young people across London.
Y-Stop has several handy tips for helping you deal with a stop and search. These can be memorised using the acronym S.E.A.R.C.H.
- Stay Calm – keep yourself calm at all times to help ensure a clear and quick resolution.
- Eye Contact – be polite so that it makes it harder for anger or fear to better you.
- Ask Questions – this not a confrontation. Ask questions about the process as the police need to account for themselves.
- Receipt - get written proof of the search and ensure that this has been completed truthfully.
- Record – you have a right to record the search, but you must ask permission to do so before reaching for a video recording device. Filming protects everyone’s interests.
- Confidence – know your rights.
- Hold to account – following the above steps can encourage the police to behave properly.
Y-Stop has a handy app that lets you record a police stop and search and to complain directly to the police if you are unhappy with the way you have been treated by an officer. Release and StopWatch receive a copy of your complaint so the police know a third party is involved.
Should you be arrested by the police and taken to your local police station following a stop and search please do ensure that you seek legal advice/representation when you are at the station. This will be in your best interests, no matter how trivial you believe the matter to be. You have a right to seek legal counsel and should use it.
All advice and assistance in the police station is free of charge. Do not be duped by officers stating it will take hours for a solicitor to reach you so you may as well be interviewed quickly. Invariably a lawyer can be with you within the hour, so you should wait it out.