Guide: UK Stop & Search Rights
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
With the recent pandemic, Stop & Searches have been steadily increasing. Expansion in police power can either be seen as safe or worrying due to the increase in subjective analysis and lack of Covid-appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Racism and prejudice persist in day-to-day life, so how can you protect yourself and others?
This guide will walk you through your key rights during police-led stop and frisk operations in the UK.
What is stop & search?
The police force is designed to be an entity responsible for human rights and preservation of life through key principles of legitimacy, respect, and transparency.
Stop & Search is a method for police to deny or confirm suspicions about individuals without exercising their power of arrest. During this procedure, police will stop an individual, ask them questions and might require the removal of external clothing. Ideally, this process should reduce crime rates.
Race and stop & search amendments
This technique became crucial for protection against race crimes such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an innocent black 18-year-old who was fatally stabbed whist waiting at a bus stop in London (1993). Knife crimes are still one of the most common deviancies in the UK, with most victims belonging to minority ethnic groups (92% male, 80% under the age of 25).
In Lawrence’s case, it was later discovered that a group of white youths was responsible for the murder. After years of campaigning, these youths still had not been fully persecuted so Sir William Macpherson, a retired high court judge and former soldier, worked on what is now known as the ‘Macpherson report’. This document expressed clear intolerance towards institutional racism and prejudice, and moulded criminal law in public sectors by advocating for numerous significant changes including:
The abolishment of double jeopardy in murder cases if fresh evidence is found (a law which prevented an accused person could not be tried a second time for the same crime, once acquitted).
Logging, tracking and monitoring of all Stop & Searches.
Official recordings of all racist incidents and crimes.
Knowing your rights
There are a variety of search methods, including Stop & Account, Stop & Search and Stop & Strip. Your rights may vary depending on the procedure.
Stop & Account
Allows police officers to stop you and ask questions (e.g. name, reasons for your current location). You are free to leave at any time, but it is advised to ask the officer if you are being detained to ensure that you are allowed to go. In this procedure, the officer cannot use your exit as evidence of suspicious actions.
Stop & Search
This occurs if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe you have been involved in a crime or suspects you are holding a forbidden item. You are not allowed to walk away. The officer must show you his/her badge and, before you are searched, you should ask for:
The officer’s name and police station
What the officer is looking for
The reason as to why you were stopped
A copy of the Stop & Search records, or a way to access this information
The officer must notify you of any legal applications and asking about relevant legislation is advised. During this process you should not need to provide your address, but you might be asked for your name, what you’re doing in the area and where you’re going.
In accordance with Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994), police also have the right to search people for dangerous instruments if authorised by their superior, and this right is only valid for 24 hours (unless publicly announced e.g. during a terrorist attack). Officers are advised to use their own judgement or opinion in this process. However, the lack of specific regulations has caused considerable psychological damage to many individuals.
Strip & Search
There must be a reason for every Strip & Search, and they must be conducted in a designated area (can occur in police stations, but not in police vans). Searches must be conducted by an officer of the same sex as the individual, and no other officers can witness the process.
If you feel humiliated or uncomfortable, make sure you tell the officer and kindly request some privacy. If you feel physically, mentally, or verbally violated, write an email to yourself as soon as the search ends. This contemporaneous record will not only allow you to remember every detail but having written thoughts can also help you process your emotions and, if the case escalates, an accurate record like this might be seen as acceptable court evidence. Ensure that every detail is included, especially the date, time, officer name, officer police station, and clear key events.
Remember: individuals under the age of 17 must have a parent or guardian with them to oversee the search.
What is the impact of Stop & Search?
In the event that a search is executed, and all suspicions are false, the experience can still negatively impact the stopped individuals.
Not only is it physically uncomfortable to remove layers of clothing in front of strangers, but it’s also emotionally draining. The psychological impact of being stopped suddenly by the police in a public place can lead to feelings of exclusion or indignity, ultimately affecting the individual’s ambition and self-esteem. People are being chosen and physically scrutinised in a public setting, and it has become obvious that those belonging to ethnic minorities are approached the most.
How can the system improve?
1. More training around mental health
2. Selective police force recruitment to encourage diversity
3. Removal of selectivism
Largest group stopped are Black individuals.
Asian ethnic minority groups are often associated with steady home lives, so may be targeted less.
A clear framework for fairness models is still required to remove prejudice.
4. Clarity in Stop & Search guidance regarding the instructions and training used to prepare officers
This should relieve them of having to use their own opinion when identifying possible criminal activity.
Searches are still applicable due to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984, also known as PACE), with an unfortunate exponential increase in cases (especially in West England).
5. Increased sanctions for officers when search rules and guidelines are not followed
6. Creation of a unified Stop & Search legislative act
The current rules stem from a mix of acts including, but not limited to:
S.47 Firearms Act (1968)
S23 Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)
S.136C Mental Health Act, subject to a warrant (1983)
S.140 Criminal Justice Act (1988)
S.47A Terrorism Act (2000)
S36 & 37 Psychoactive Act (2016)
Some useful resources
For extra protection, we recommend the Legal Lifelines App. The SOS option allows you to discreetly record your Stop & Search encounter, and the video footage is automatically updated and stored as evidence into the Legal Lifelines secure network (equipped with military-grade encryption).
Explore the Met Police website for more information on the search process.
Consider that the police have been created for the protection of the people in accordance with the Seven Principles of Public Life.