Police / Police powers / Stop and search
Stop and Search
What powers do the police have to stop and search you? What are your rights during a stop and search? What does the Public Order Act 2023 have to do with this?
[Header image description: a uniformed police officer and a searches member of the public who is brown with fark curly hair. They aare in front of a reflective shop front, which shows several other police officers.]
Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our page here.
“Stop and search” is the power the police have to stop people and detain them in order to search them. It’s one of the most controversial and most criticised police powers. These powers are often used by the police to harass racialised communities. Liberty has challenged the discriminatory use of stop and search and the expansion of stop and search powers, as well as calling for the scrapping of suspicion-less stop and search powers.
What is ‘stop and search’?
This page gives you information on the two main types of stop and search powers:
- Suspicion-based stop and search
- Suspicion-less stop and search
We have also included some information on stop and search for people under Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs).
Information on how the police can search you is available here.
1. Suspicion-based stop and search
This is when the police stop you and they have reasonable grounds to suspect you are carrying stolen property or the following ‘prohibited articles’:
- a weapon;
- something that could be used to commit certain crimes (burglary, theft, fraud, criminal damage, and – when relevant provisions of the Public Order Act 2023 come into force – various protest offences);
- illegal fireworks.
The new Act gives the police the additional power to stop and search you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect you are carrying something “made or adapted [or intended] for use in the course of or in connection with” the protest offences listed here.
What does ‘reasonable grounds’ mean?
The College of Policing is a professional body for police staff. Their guide on fairness in stop and search says ‘reasonable grounds’ means that:
- The officer must genuinely suspect that they will find the item they’re searching for. This suspicion should be about how likely it is that you have the item. It shouldn’t be based on how likely they think it is that you’re breaking the law.
- It must be objectively reasonable for them to suspect this, given the information they had. This means that it is what an ordinary person would think was fair if they had all the information the police officer has.
Unless the police have information which provides a description of someone carrying an illegal item, the reasonable grounds cannot be based on
- your physical appearance
- being part of a category of people, such as being a black girl, or
- generalisations or stereotypes.
In some cases, the police can stop you because of your behaviour or because of where you are at a certain time. If the police believe you are acting suspiciously, they must be able to explain how your behaviour was suspicious.
A hunch or a “vibe” does not count as reasonable grounds unless it can be fully explained to another neutral person who was observing in a way that would allow them to reach the same conclusion.
If the police have no reasonable grounds, you are free to leave, and the police should tell you this.
You have the right to know the grounds for the search
- when you’re being searched
- on the record of the search, if you ask for it
Skip to the bottom of this page for more information on your rights if you’re stopped and searched. If you think the grounds given are not reasonable or untrue, you might want to get advice from a lawyer specialising in public law. You can see our ‘I Need a Lawyer‘ page for information on how to find one.
2. Suspicion-less stop and search
Section 60 searches
Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows a police officer to stop and search a person without reasonable suspicion. These are known as ‘Section 60’ searches.
Who can authorise a Section 60 search?
Section 60 searches can only be carried by a uniformed police officer, if they have been authorised by a senior police officer of at least the rank of Inspector.
To authorise Section 60 ‘stop and searches’, the senior police officer must reasonably believe that:
- incidents involving serious violence may take place in the officer’s area – and authorisation will help to prevent them, or
- 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
- people are carrying weapons in the officer’s area without good reason.
How long can the authorisation last?
The authorisation can be in force for up to 24 hours and may be extended for a further 24 hours, if authorised by a Superintendent or more senior officer.
Searches for people under Serious Violence Reduction Orders
Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) were introduced under the new Policing Act. The Policing Act is officially called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (PCSC Act).
Our website has a page on SVROs here. The key thing is that if you have an SVRO made against you, the police can stop and search you to find out if you’re carrying a bladed article. If you are in a public place, the police don’t need to have reasonable suspicion to do this.
To stop and search you under these powers, the police should ensure that you are subject to an SVRO.
If an officer is unsure of your identity, they should
- try to find out your identity
- check to see if you have an SVRO before they search you. They can do this by looking it up on the Police National Computer. The PNC is a national database of information available to all UK police forces.
If a police officer can’t confirm that you are subject to an SVRO, they can’t search you unless
- they have reasonable suspicion under their usual stop and search powers, or
- other stop and search powers apply, such as a section 60 authorisation.
If they don’t have other grounds to search you, but search you anyway, the Government guidance says the search will be unlawful.
Public Order Act 2023
Section 11 of the Public Order Act 2023 gives police the additional power to carry out suspicion-less stop and searches in relation to protest activity. As of 16 October 2023, this is not yet in force.
These searches must authorised by an Inspector or a more senior officer. It allows a uniformed police officer can carry out suspicion-less stop and searches in a particular location for a specific period, where the senior officer reasonably believes:
- the following offences may be committed in the area:
- people in the area are carrying ‘prohibited’ items – an item “made or adapted [or intended] for use in the course of or in connection with” the above protest offences;
- the authorisation is necessary to prevent people committing the above offences or carrying prohibited items.
The authorisation must apply to a specific location (no greater an area than necessary) and specific period (no longer than necessary). The senior officer must “as soon as it is practicable” inform a superintendent or more senior officer that they have given an authorisation. The authorisation can be in force for up to 24 hours and may be extended for a further 24 hours, if authorised by a superintendent or more senior officer.
The Public Order Act 2023 also creates a new criminal offence of intentional obstruction during a suspicion-less, protest-related stop and search. If convicted, you are punishable with up to one months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £1000, or both.
What are my rights if I’m stopped and searched?
The College of Policing have a guide on how police should behave when they stop and search people. It says that the police must search you in accordance with ‘GOWISELY’.
It’s an acronym – each letter of GOWISELY stands for your rights if you’re stopped and searched.
G: Grounds for suspicion. For suspicion-based searches, the police must clearly explain the basis for their reasonable suspicion.
O: Object of the search. The police must clearly explain what they are looking for.
W: Warrant card. The police must show you this if you ask for it, or if they aren’t wearing a uniform.
I: Identity of the police officer or officers. The police officers involved in stopping and searching you must give you their name and shoulder number.
S: Station. The police must tell you which police station they work at.
E: Entitlement to a search record. The police must provide you with a copy of the search record or, if this is not practicable, provide information on how you can get a copy.
L: Legal power used. The police must tell you what legal power they are using to stop and search you.
Y: ‘You are detained for the purposes of a search’. The police must tell you this. ‘Detained’ means you are not free to leave until they tell you.
How long can police keep me for?
The time for which they detain you must be ‘kept to a minimum.’
If you are unsure whether the stop and search is complete, ask “am I being detained?” If you are not being detained, you have no legal obligations.
Can I get a record of the search?
If the police stop and search you, they must tell you that you have the right to a copy of any record of the search. You can get the record if you ask within 3 months of the search.
If you are not arrested and taken to a police station, you can get the record immediately after they finish searching you. However, the police don’t have to do this if they are called away to a higher priority incident.
If they don’t give you one straight away, the police must at least give you information on how you can get a copy.
These records are important if you want to complain about the search later.
Do the police always make a record of the search?
Normally, the police must make a record of the search.
This record can be made electronically or on paper. However, they don’t have to do this if it is not practicable.
This record must include certain details such as:
- Your ethnicity
- The date, time and place of the search
- What the police were looking for
- The identity of all officers involved in the search
For Section 60 searches: the record must give details of the authorisation. You also have the right to a written statement that you have been stopped and searched under section 60 if you apply within 1 year.
For searches based on suspicion: the record must include a clear explanation of the ‘reasonable’ grounds for suspicion.
The record does not have to include your name, address or date of birth.
Full requirements for recording stop and searches are found in PACE Code A.
Can the police strip search me?
The police can ask you to take off your outer coat, jacket and gloves. Anything more than this must be done out of public view. Please see our article on strip searches for more information.
More information on the different kinds of stop and search is available here.
When they stop and search someone, the police must not discriminate against you under the Equality Act 2010. This means they must not decide to stop and search you – or mistreat you during your stop and search – because of things like your:
- race (including nationality and ethnic background)
- sexual orientation
- gender reassignment
- religion or faith.
Standing up for your rights
More information on your protest rights is available on our Advice and Information Hub, including the following pages:
CONTACT US FOR ADVICE AND INFORMATION
If you would like advice and information on stop and search and other police powers, and the above pages do not answer your questions, you can contacts us:
CALL OUR HUMAN RIGHTS INFORMATION LINE
You can reach the Human Rights Information Line by calling 0800 988 8177 and selecting option 3 from the main menu (Monday evenings from 6pm to 8pm, Tuesday lunchtimes from 12pm to 2pm and Thursday evenings from 6pm to 8pm)
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