Police Powers under PACE 1984

First contact with the criminal justice system

For many people, the first contact they have with a criminal matter will involve the police. The police have the legal responsibility for investigating crime, searching for evidence, making arrests, and considering – in conjunction with the CPS – whether to charge an individual with a criminal offence.

Police powers are set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, commonly known as PACE. PACE is supplemented by Codes of Practice clarifying the various powers of the police – these are reviewed from time to time as required.

PACE 1984

PACE was introduced to regulate and control police powers to stop, search, and arrest and detain and interview alleged criminals.PACE protects citizens, detainees, offenders, and the police themselves – striking a balance between the powers of the police, and the rights and freedoms of the public.

Powers before arrest

Police officers have an uninterrupted power to ask members of the public questions which they believe may deter and prevent crime, or detect crime. However, no member of the public is under any obligation to answer these questions, whether on the street or in the police station, unless they have been lawfully detained.

An issue may arise as to how far a police officer can go in order to detain a person without arresting them. The courts have decided that a police officer may touch a person in order to gain their attention, eg. by tapping their shoulder, but they cannot stop them from moving away unless they are arresting that person.

In addition, under section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002, a uniformed police officer can require a person to provide their name and addressif they reasonably believe they have behaved in an anti-social manner. If a person fails to do so they may be arrested under section 25 PACE.

The power to stop and search

Under section 1 PACE, a police officer may search a person or vehicle in public for stolen or prohibited articles. Prohibited articles may include offensive weapons, or articles that may be used to commit a crime. The police may only use this power if they have reasonable grounds to believe that they will discover stolen or prohibited articles. The power must be used fairly and responsibly.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 extended thestop and search power to search for articles intended to cause criminal damage.

Police officers exercising their stop and search powers must have reasonable grounds to do so, unless they have been approved by a senior police officer to conduct a stop and search (for instance, if it is believed serious violent offence may take place). Members of the public must not be subject to random searches.

Before the search begins

When a person is stopped for the purposes of a search, the police officer will ask them to provide their name, address and ethnicity. Before a police officer carries out a search under section 1, they must identify themselves and the station at which they are based, and explain to the person they are about to search, and their reasons for it. They must also say what they expect to find on the individual (for instance, drugs). If a police officer is not in uniform, they must show their warrant card.

A police officer has the power to use reasonable force if necessary, however, the person being searched cannot be asked to remove any clothing in public, with the exception of an outer coat, gloves, scarf and hat etc. If the police officer wishes a further search to take place, this will have to be conducted in a private place – usually at the police station.

The police officer conducting the search must keep a record of the search. Any articles of an offensive or violent nature, or which have been stolen, will be seized by the police officer at the scene.

Recording the search

When a police officer is recording a stop and search, they will detail why the person was stopped for a search, and record the outcome. A copy will be given to the person searched (or if not possible, the individual will be told how they can obtain a copy).

Other powers to stop and search

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

In addition to PACE, section 23 of the 1971 Act allows the police to stop and search anyone they reasonably believe to be in possession of an illegal, controlled drug.

Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc) Act 1985

The 1985 Act gives police permission to stop and search anyone prior to entry into certain sporting events, such as a football match, to search for items that are prohibited from the grounds.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

Section 60 of the 1994 Act gives a senior police officer the power to give written authorisation to police officers to stop and search people and vehicles within a certain area, where the senior police officer believes serious violence may occur. In these circumstances, stop and search powers may be exercised for a period of 24 hours (this may be extended for another 30hours). The police may stop and search any pedestrian or vehicles for offensive and dangerous weapons.

Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001

The 2001 Act gives the Home Secretary the power to authorise, in secret, for the police to make random stop and searches in order to fight the threat of terrorism.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.