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  • Writer's pictureRich Hamilton

Stop and Search UK Law – Know your rights!

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Like many, you’re probably not that clued up on what to do if you’re stopped by the police when going about your day to day business. The good news is that generally the police are there to keep you and everyone else safe. In the unlikely event however that you do get stopped, it helps to know what to expect, what your legal rights are, and what is and is not allowed to happen.

Hopefully you will never need to use this information but in-case you do find yourself in a sticky situation, here is a crash course on what you need to know about being “stopped and searched” in the UK.

The police can stop and question you at any time - they can search you depending on the situation.

A police community support officer (PCSO) must be in uniform when they stop and question you. A police officer doesn’t always have to be in uniform but if they’re not wearing uniform they must show you their warrant card.

The rules are different in Scotland.

Stop and search: police powers

A police officer has powers to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re carrying:

· illegal drugs

· a weapon

· stolen property

· something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer. 

This can happen if it is suspected that:

· serious violence could take place.

· you’re carrying a weapon or have used one.

· you’re in a specific location or area.

Before you’re searched

Before you’re searched the police officer must tell you: their name and police station what they expect to find, for example drugs. The reason they want to search you, for example if it looks like you’re hiding something.

Why they are legally allowed to search you that you can have a record of the search and if this isn’t possible at the time, how you can get a copy

Removing clothing: police powers

A police officer can ask you to take off your coat, jacket or gloves.

The police might ask you to take off other clothes and anything you’re wearing for religious reasons - for example a veil or turban. If they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view. If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you.

Police powers to seize alcohol, cash and fireworks

Once they have carried out a search of a person or a vehicle, the police have the power to seize and retain anything that they consider to be relevant to an offence.

The police can seize cash of £1,000 or more if they suspect that it could be the proceeds of crime. 

The police have the power to confiscate alcohol from people under 18 who are drinking in a public place. They can also confiscate alcohol from people aged 18 or over if it's suspected that the alcohol has been consumed or it's intended for consumption by people under 18.

The police can confiscate fireworks that they think are going to be used for antisocial purposes.

Whilst police generally need a warrant to search you or your property, in the event of a traffic stop they only need probable cause to legally search your vehicle.

Probable cause means police must have some facts or evidence to believe you’re involved in criminal activity.

In other words, an officer’s hunch without evidence of illegal activity is not enough to legally search your car. Before searching, he must observe something real. Common examples of probable cause include the sight or smell of contraband in plain view or plain smell, or an admission of guilt for a specific crime. The presentation of any of these facts would allow an officer to perform a search and make an arrest.

Be aware that minor traffic violations (e.g. speeding, broken tail-light, or expired registration) are not considered probable cause.

When can the police enter and search premises?

In general, the police don’t have the power to search premises without a warrant unless they have obtained the permission of the person concerned, or a delay in obtaining a warrant would be likely to defeat the ends of justice, for example, that evidence will be destroyed or removed.

There are also certain statutes, which provide for the search of premises, cars or vessels without a warrant. Evidence obtained legally by these means would be admissible (acceptable or valid) as evidence in a court. Admissibility of evidence obtained during a search is always subject to examination by the courts and depends on the circumstances of particular cases.

Search warrants

A search warrant authorises the police to enter premises on one occasion only. If the police have a search warrant they can, if necessary, use reasonable force to enter and search the premises. The householder or occupier of the premises is responsible for any repairs that are needed as a result of the police forcing entry. However, if the police search an address in error, the police should be asked to repair any damage they cause.

When can the police seize property covered in the warrant and other goods

If you are not guilty and they have no grounds to issue a warrant, you can explain they do not have the right to search you. But if they have grounds to warrant a search, have provided you with their police ID and their reason for the search, you cannot refuse.

If you refuse, force will be used against you to disarm without causing harm.

The police can legally search you or your property if they go down the route of PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984)

Section 17 would require a Warrant to search your property

Section 18 would mean that they would have to arrest you to search your property

If they do not have a warrant, you are allowed to leave. Simply say you do not consent to being searched and you can walk away.

If the police have used a search warrant to search premises or a vehicle and they have found articles covered by the warrant, they have the power to seize them and take them into safe custody, for example, to a police station.

Can the police force you to open a locked safe, box, container or bag in your home or car?

In order to demand a search, the officer has to have “probable cause” that the safe/bag/container contains contraband, or that the thing itself is stolen.

Just having a lockable storage device in your car is not “probable cause”.

However, had there just been a report of a burglary, in which a safe had been stolen, and the safe in your car was of the same brand and type

A police officer has to have probable cause to believe that there is contraband in you car to search it which means the contraband has to be in sight or detected by other means like a drug sensing canine. In such an incident they can request that you open the safe voluntarily but if you refuse they can request a warrant or seize the vehicle.

They can impound the car and seek a warrant. In a vehicle you have less legal protection against a search because a Car is a movable object. The courts therefore give Police more leeway to search vehicles since a delay could cause the evidence to drive away and “disappear”. 

If they have probable cause to believe the vehicle or locked storage vessel has contraband in it and you refuse to open it they can just impound your car or seize the vessel until they are granted a search warrant. 

How and when can I get my items back from the police?

Where a warrant is granted to search for specific items of stolen property, the police have the power to seize other items not referred to in the warrant if they show the suspect may have been involved in another crime.

If the police have seized certain items of yours after a search, you have no right to make the police return them. If you want to ask about retrieving articles from the police you should write to the Chief Constable to establish if the property is to be used in evidence. If the property is to be used as evidence, the Procurator Fiscal is responsible for its disposal and the Fiscal will deal with enquiries concerning the property.

You may be able to take legal action to get a court order for the article(s) to be returned but this would be a complex process, for which legal advice would be needed.

Discrimination and complaining about how you were searched

The police cannot stop and search you only on the basis of the following, which are known as “protected characteristics”

· race

· religion

· sexual orientation

· gender

· age

· clothing or general appearance (although there is an exception for gangs) the fact that you have previous convictions.

There are exceptions to the rule of course, such as the case that how you look or who you are may be part of the information that supports the reasonable grounds for searching you. 

For example, if an officer has been told that a man in his early thirties, in a green coat, has been seen carrying a knife and you fit that description then the officer is within his powers to stop and search you.

The police may have reliable knowledge that members of a group or a gang who dress or look similar to one another often carry knives, drugs or other weapons. In this case clothing or appearance could provide reasonable grounds to search a member of the group. 

If you aren't happy with any aspect of police conduct, for example you don't think the police followed the code of practice when they searched you, you can make a complaint. In some circumstances you may also be able to take legal action, for example if you feel you were discriminated against.

Stop and search in the U.K - Know your rights.

By Rich Hamilton

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