Coronavirus / What can the police do?

Coronavirus: what can the police do?

This information was correct as of 13 May 2020, but is subject to possible changes.

Unless otherwise stated, this page sets out the law and guidance which is applicable in England only.

How are these new rules going to be enforced?

If a police officer (or other relevant person, like a police community support officer, or PCSO for short) believes you have left your home or have stayed outside your home without a reasonable excuse, they can fine you or charge you with a criminal offence.

They may tell you to go home. If you don’t, and you don’t have a reasonable excuse for not going home, this is a separate criminal offence and you could be fined or charged.

If you don’t comply with their request, the police officer can take you back to the place where you are living. They are allowed to use reasonable force to do this. But it must be necessary and proportionate for the officer to physically take you home, rather than just telling you to go by yourself.

The briefing given to police says they should encourage you to comply voluntarily in the first instance. It also says they should tell you about the regulations and remind you about the public health risks of coronavirus.

Guidance isn't law

Police can only enforce the law – which is set out in the regulations. Guidance isn’t law. And so Government social distancing guidance – such as advice to stay 2-metres apart, avoid public transport, and to wear face-coverings – isn’t enforceable by the police.

This means that you shouldn’t be given a fine for breaking the social distancing rules. This has always been the case, but it has been emphasised to the police in a recent briefing. Our page on the new rules sets out where you can find both the regulations and social distancing guidance.

If I get stopped by the police, do I have to answer their questions?

Police have the power to stop you in a public place and ask for your name, where you are going and what you are doing. This is known as “Stop and Account”. In most circumstances, you don’t have to stay with the officer or answer their questions.

The police also have a power to stop vehicles for any reason. Again, they can ask you to account for yourself, but they can’t generally force you to stay or take further action against you unless they have good reason for doing so.

However, refusing to answer the police’s questions about why you are outside of your home could give them reason to believe you are breaching the new regulations. It is now a criminal offence to leave or to be outside of your home without a reasonable excuse. If police have a reasonable belief that you are outside your home without a valid reason, they can take action against you.

You don’t have to show evidence of why you have left your home. The CPS guide to what might be a reasonable excuse makes clear that police should not ask you for ID or any other kind of document. But if you do have something that shows a good reason for your journey – such as work ID or a letter from your employer – it’s a good idea to take it with you.

What is reasonable force? What happens if the police use excessive force?

Under the new rules, police can use reasonable force to take you back to the place where you are living – but only if it’s necessary and proportionate.

They can also use reasonable force if you resist arrest, or if it’s necessary to prevent a crime being committed. These powers come from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (known as PACE).

‘Reasonable force’ means using only as much force as they need in the circumstances. It must be the minimum – no more.

If the police use excessive force, you may be able to take a case against them for compensation. If you believe this has happened, you should speak to a solicitor specialising in actions against the police. Get help to find one here.

Can I be arrested?

The police can arrest you if they have good reason to believe you might have committed a crime – and that arresting you is necessary.

An example of when it might be considered necessary to arrest you is if you refuse to give your name and address when questioned. Other reasons it might be necessary to arrest you include:

  • to maintain public health
  • to maintain public order.

If the police are going to arrest you, they should first identify themselves as police officers. They should also explain that you are being arrested, what offence you are being arrested for, and why it’s necessary to arrest you. See our page on what to do if you’re arrested.

According to the guidance that’s been given to the police, before fining you or charging you with an offence they should give you the option of returning to your home voluntarily.

What do I do if I am unhappy with the way the police have treated me?

If you’re unhappy with the way the police have treated you, you can make a complaint.

If you believe the police have acted unlawfully, you should speak to a solicitor specialising in actions against the police. Get help to find one here.

You can also contact us for further advice. If you have been affected by any of the issues on this page, we’d like to hear from you.

Read our next page on criminal penalties.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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