Police powers / Stop and search

Stop and search

‘Stop and search’ is one of the most used, most controversial and most criticised police powers.

There is a lot of concern that the police’s ‘stop and search’ powers are used incorrectly or unfairly. People feel like they’ve been stopped for no reason – and they’re not sure of their rights.

This page helps to explain the law and your rights, and what you can do if it happens to you.

What is ‘stop and search’?

The first thing to know is that there are two kinds of ‘stop and search’:

  1. Suspicion-based stop and search
  2. Suspicion-less stop and search

1. Suspicion-based stop and search

This is the one that most people think of when they hear the term ‘stop and search’.

Different laws give police the power to stop and search you. But they can only do this if they have a genuine suspicion that you are carrying:

  • drugs
  • a weapon
  • stolen property
  • something that could be used to commit a crime.

This genuine suspicion must be based on reasonable grounds.

What does ‘reasonable grounds’ mean?

‘Reasonable grounds’ is what an ordinary person would think was fair if they had all the information the police officer has. You can’t be stopped for no reason. Nor can they stop you because of your physical appearance, or the fact that you belong to a particular category of people, or have a criminal record.

How long can police keep me for?

They can only detain you during the search – and only for as short a time as possible.

If they don’t have reasonable grounds, the search is unlawful and so is keeping you there. If so, you could take legal action or make a complaint against the police.

What are my rights?

If the police stop and search you, they must:

  • give their name and police station
  • tell you what they expect to find
  • explain the reasons for the search
  • make a record of the search – unless it’s not practical to do so.

You have the right to a copy of the record if you ask for it within three months. It should include information such as your ethnicity.

Can they strip search me?

They can ask you to take off your outer coat, jacket and gloves. Anything more and they must take you to a police station – or out of public view to a police tent.

They can’t use force to remove your clothes, as this could be assault.

If they don’t take reasonable steps to comply with these rules, the search may be considered unlawful.

2. Suspicionless stop and search

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows a police officer to stop and search a person without suspicion.

This is different from ordinary ‘stop and search’ because it means the police don’t need to have ‘reasonable grounds’ in order to stop and search you.

Section 60 searches can only be carried out if authorised by a senior police officer who must be at least the rank of Inspector. The authorisation usually lasts for 24 hours – although it can sometimes be extended.

To authorise Section 60 ‘stop and searches’, the senior police officer must reasonably believe that:

  1. Incidents involving serious violence may take place in the officer’s area – and authorisation will help to prevent them.OR
  2. An incident involving serious violence has taken place in the officer’s area and that a weapon used in the incident is being carried in the area – and authorisation will help to find the weapon.OR
  3. People are carrying weapons in the officer’s area without good reason.

If a Section 60 authorisation has been granted, there is little you can do to prevent the police carrying out this type of stop and search.

But you are still entitled to these rights:

  • The police need to explain that a section 60 authorisation is in force and what they can do under this power.
  • You are entitled to a written statement that you have been stopped and searched under section 60 if you apply within one year.

Treating people fairly

When they stop and search someone, the police still have to do it fairly and respect the person’s rights under the Equality Act 2010.  They should not stop and search you because of things like your:

  • race (including nationality and ethnic background)
  • age
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • gender reassignment
  • disability
  • religion or faith.
Standing up for your rights

If you feel you have been stopped for no good reason or have been treated unfairly, you can make a police complaint. If you have been arrested and charged, we advise you to get help from a solicitor. You can get help to find one here.

What are my rights on this?

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

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