Police Powers – Stop and Search

Stop and question

The police have the power to stop you or any other member of the public – whether on foot or in a vehicle – and ask you questions such as your name, the reason for you being in the area and where you are going. You don’t have to stop and answer the questions and, if there is no reason to suspect you of a crime, the police cannot just arrest you or demand to search you.

If a police community support officer stops and tries to question you, they must be in uniform; a police officer doesn’t need to be in uniform to stop and question you, but if they’re not, they must show you their warrant card.

If the police stop you it does not necessarily mean they believe you have done anything wrong and it is not the same as an arrest. Police may be stopping you to ask for help or information.

Stop and Search

A police officer is allowed to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re carrying:

  • illegal drugs;
  • a weapon;
  • stolen property;
  • something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.

If such reasonable grounds aren’t present, you can only be stopped and searched with prior approval of a senior police officer and then only if:

  • serious violence could take place;
  • you’re carrying a weapon or have used one;
  • you’re in a specific location or area.

Unless you fit the description of a suspect, the police cannot stop you on the basis of your age, race, sex, religion, the clothes you are wearing, hairstyles or tattoos as this would breach discrimination laws.

What happens if I am stopped and searched?

The police must tell you what their name is, what station they work for, the reason they are stopping you and what they are looking for. Additionally, they must record all the details of the stop and search on a form, a copy of which must be given to you.

The search must take place in a public place, eg, the street. However, if the officer asks you to remove more than your coat, hat, gloves or anything you wear for a religious reason, they must take you somewhere out of the public view. If the police require you to remove more than your jacket and gloves you must be searched by an officer of the same sex.

You will be asked to empty your pockets and the contents of your bag. They can also search your vehicle, even if you are not there, but they must inform you that they have done so.

If you are searched and found to be carrying an illegal substance/weapon, or police believe you have committed a crime, you may be arrested.

If the police do not find anything, your details will be recorded for monitoring purposes and you will be free to leave.

What information will I have to provide?

When you are being stopped and searched you do not have to provide the police with information such as your name, age, date of birth or address. However, it is advisable to describe your ethnic origin when asked as this information is used for monitoring purposes.

Can I complain?

If you think you have been treated unfairly and have only been stopped because of your age, ethnicity, clothes, etc, you can make a discrimination complaint.

The form you were given with the details of the stop and search should also have a record of the police officers details. This should enable you to take the complaint straight to the police station they work at.

If the outcome of your complaint is not to your satisfaction then you can go to Citizens Advice, the Equality and Human Rights Commission or a solicitor for advice or complain to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.