Attending a protest / Police / Questioning
Do I have to answer police questions?
Can I walk away from a police officer asking me questions in the street? What are “Section 50” powers? What if I’m interviewed “under caution”? Find these answers and more here.
No, in most cases you don’t have to answer police questions, but it depends on the circumstances.
Although you’re not generally required to answer police questions, this doesn’t mean you’re allowed to lie or to give deliberately difficult answers.
It’s not always an offence to lie to a police officer, but if you do lie, it could be considered to be obstruction of an officer or wasting police time, particularly if they are asking questions about an investigation or a case.
If you’re asked a question that you don’t want – and are not obliged – to answer, you could:
- ask if you are being detained, and walk away if the answer is no
- say “no comment”
- simply stay quiet.
What if we’re having a casual conversation?
Police officers are allowed to use and record information which you provide in casual conversation. If you’re at a protest or similar event, a police officer may try to start a conversation with you and gather information about you or others. But just because they’re in a police uniform, it doesn’t give their questions any additional power. If you don’t want to talk to them, you are free to stay silent and walk away, as you would with anyone else.
The police often use these tactics at protests with “police liaison officers”. These officers wear blue bibs and will try to talk to protesters in order to collect information. If you’re at a protest and approached by a police liaison officer, remember you are under no obligation to talk them if you don’t want to.
What is a ‘stop and account’?
A ‘stop and account’ is when a police officer or police community support officer (PCSO) stops you to ask you what you’re doing. They might also ask for your name and address.
Although this might seem more official than a casual conversation, you’re under no obligation to answer them. You can decline to answer and walk away.
The police aren’t allowed to use refusal to answer questions as a reason to search or arrest you. If they do, you may be able to bring a legal challenge against them.
If you’re not sure if it’s a ‘stop and account’, you can ask whether you’re being detained or if you’re free to go.
What is a ‘stop and search’?
To understand what ‘stop and search’ is, visit our dedicated ‘stop and search’ page.
If you’re approached by a police officer for ‘stop and search’, you’re still not required to answer anything.
If they ask whether they can search somewhere, you don’t have to say yes. There are two key points to remember:
- If they have the legal power to search somewhere (e.g. an ordinary stop and search can include searching your outer layer of clothing), they do not need your permission.
- If they don’t have the legal power to search somewhere (e.g. an ordinary stop and search cannot include searching your under garments) then saying yes does not make the search legal.
They might also ask your name and address, but again, you are not required to give this information and you should not feel pressured to answer their questions. If they find something during the search, or otherwise are treating you as a suspect, see that section below.
What are ‘Section 50’ powers?
Section 50 of the Police Reform Act allows the police to ask for your name and address if they believe you are, or have been, engaging in anti-social behaviour. That is, behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, “harassment, alarm or distress”.
In these circumstances, you are required to provide these details and it is an offence to refuse, or to give false or inaccurate information.
However, the police cannot use Section 50 as a “blanket power”. This means that the police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that you, specifically, are engaging in, or have been engaging in, anti-social behaviour. They are not allowed to question everyone in a crowd just because they suspect that someone in that crowd was involved in anti-social behaviour.
This can be especially important to remember during protests.
For more information on this, see our pages here.
What if I’m questioned as a suspect?
If you’re told that you’re suspected of committing a crime, the law around police questioning and what you are obliged to say is different.
If you’re a suspect, you’re still not required to answer questions, but the police are likely to ask for your name or address. If you refuse to answer, you may be arrested. This is because the police are allowed to arrest a suspect if they believe it is “necessary” for the investigation. They can therefore argue that, because you didn’t provide any identifying information, they had to arrest you in case they couldn’t find you later. The law actually specifies that an arrest may be “necessary” in order for the police to get a suspects name or address. Because of this, arrest is sometimes used as a threat if you don’t answer their questions.
But even in this situation, there is still no legal obligation for you to answer their questions. And if they do arrest you and can’t show that it was necessary for the investigation, you may be able to bring a legal claim against them.
Just because you’re being arrested, it doesn’t mean you’re being charged. The police can only hold you for 24 hours without charge, unless you’re suspected of a serious crime such as murder or terrorism. To charge you, they would need sufficient evidence. The fact you refused to answer questions is not evidence and cannot be used as a reason to hold you for any longer without charge.
What happens if I’m arrested?
If you’re arrested, you will be questioned again.
If a police officer tries to start a casual conversation with you on the way to the police station, you do not have to answer their questions.
Once you get to the police station, you’ll probably be questioned formally. This is known as an interview. You’ll know when this happens because the police must read out a caution beforehand and the conversation will be recorded. The caution is:
“You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention something when questioned that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.“
You will also have the right to legal advice, which we would recommend that you take. It might be worth finding a solicitor who specialises in the offence in question. For example, there are many solicitors who specialise in protest law.
Even when you are being formally questioned, you do not have to answer their questions. You can simply say nothing, or reply “no comment”. It might be better to prepare a written statement, or to answer some questions, but not others. Your solicitor will be better able to advise you about this at the time.
For more information on arrest, see our pages here.
What is an interview under caution?
In some circumstances, you can also be formally questioned without being arrested. This is called being interviewed ‘under caution’ and will normally be used when you are suspected of a crime.
This is similar to being questioned when under arrest, but you’ll probably have more time to get legal advice. You should find a firm specialising in criminal defence law and get their advice before your interview.
What if the police interview me as a witness?
You’re not required to provide any information to the police as a witness.
If the police try to talk to you in the street about an event, the same rules apply as for any casual conversation. You should not lie to the police, but you do not have to answer their questions. You can simply say “no comment” or walk away.
If the police ask to interview you as a witness for a legal case, you don’t have to say yes. If you do agree, you’re allowed to talk to a solicitor before the interview.
What are my rights on this?
Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them
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