Police / Police powers / Stop and search
Strip search: what are my rights?
Are the police allowed to strip search me? What can they do during a strip search? What are my rights?
What is a ‘strip search’?
A strip search is a search which involves removing more than your outer clothing. Outer clothing is things like your coat, hat, gloves, shoes and socks. If the police ask you to remove anything more than this, like your T-shirt, it would be classed as a strip search.
A physical examination that involves touching any of your body orifices, other than your mouth, is called an ‘intimate search’, for which different rules apply.
Intimate searches can only be carried out where a police officer of at least the rank of Inspector reasonably believes that you are hiding on yourself:
- an item which you could use to cause injury to yourself or others at a police station or in court, or
- a Class A drug which you intend to supply or export.
There are strict rules around when and how an intimate search can be carried out. More information can be found in Annex A of PACE Code C. PACE stands for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
When can the police strip search me?
The police can only strip search you if they reasonably believe you have concealed an item that you should not have, and they believe it necessary to remove that item.
Strip searches are often carried out after an arrest, but you don’t need to have been arrested to be strip searched.
Where can the police strip search me?
The strip search must take place in an area where you cannot be seen by anyone else, nor by anyone of the opposite sex, except an ‘appropriate adult’. You can request an appropriate adult to attend if you are a child or if the police think you are mentally vulnerable. Strip searches should not be carried out in a police van.
What is an appropriate adult?
An appropriate adult is a person responsible for safeguarding the rights and welfare of children and vulnerable people during a search or at the police station. This can be a relative, friend or carer, or someone who is specially trained to take on this role. They are there to support you and make sure the police behave properly, but they cannot give you legal advice. Read more about how an appropriate adult can help you.
What can the police do during a strip search?
The police can ask you to remove your clothing and to expose intimate parts of your body during a strip search. If you refuse, they can use reasonable force where necessary to carry out the search, but this must only be used as a last resort.
If the officer believes it is necessary, they can require you to hold your arms out in the air, or to stand with your legs apart and bend forward so a visual examination may be made of your genital and anal areas. But the officer should not require you to squat during a strip search.
The officer should not make any physical contact with any body orifice (other than your mouth) during a strip search. If they do, it will be classed as an intimate search, and different rules will apply.
What obligations do the police have during a strip search?
The officer should explain why you are being searched, including what they are looking for and why it is necessary to conduct a search. Their reason for the search can’t simply be that they haven’t found what they are looking for yet.
The police officer carrying out the strip search must be the same gender as you. You can tell the officer what gender you identify as and you should be searched by an officer of the same gender.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and accompanying codes of practice do not recognise non-binary as a gender. So if you are non-binary, you should state the sex you prefer to be treated as. Read more on your rights as a trans/non-binary person in custody.
If the strip search involves you exposing intimate body parts, you must be strip searched with at least two other people present, except in urgent cases where there is a risk of serious harm to you or others.
If you are a juvenile (age 17 and under) or are mentally vulnerable, an appropriate adult must be one of the people present during the strip search. The only times this does not apply are:
- In ‘urgent cases’, where there is a risk of serious harm to you or others
- If you are a juvenile and you indicate in the presence of the appropriate adult that you do not want them to be present, and the adult agrees.
The police officer must conduct the strip search as quickly as possible and must allow you to dress as soon as the search is complete. They must also make every reasonable effort to minimise your embarrassment, including allowing you to remove your clothing in sections.
The police should ensure you can privately inform a female officer if you are menstruating, and give you special consideration if you are. Where menstrual products are removed as part of a strip or intimate search, you should be offered a replacement without delay.
The officer is responsible for keeping safe any property taken from you.
They must also make a record of the strip search, including the reason why it was considered necessary, the people present, and the result.
Does a strip search affect my human rights?
Your right to freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment is protected by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is given effect in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998. This is an absolute right, which means it can never be lawfully interfered with.
Your right to privacy is protected by Article 8 of the ECHR. However, your right to privacy is a ‘limited’ right. This means it can be interfered with if it is done lawfully in certain specified circumstances.
The courts have said that strip searches are compatible with our human rights, but only if they are carried out lawfully and as a necessary and proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. This includes protecting public safety or preventing crime.
But if the police do not follow the correct procedures during a strip search, or if they mistreat you or use more force than is reasonably necessary, it may amount to a violation of your rights under Article 3 and Article 8 of the ECHR.
Police complaints and legal action
If you think you’ve been unlawfully strip searched or feel the police mistreated you or used excessive force during a strip search, you can make a police complaint. Learn more about police complaints.
You can also pursue a legal claim against the police. If you decide to do so, we strongly advise you seek legal representation. You should find a lawyer with expertise in ‘actions against the police’. Use our lawyer finder to help.
More information on your rights when being stopped and searched is available on our Advice & Information Hub, including:
The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) also provides guidance on strip searches and police powers.
What are my rights on this?
Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them
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