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In Great Britain, the police have the following rights to stop and search the public*.

Power to stop

The police are allowed to stop and question any member of the public if they believe they can obtain useful informaton about a crime. The person stopped is under no obligation to answer, or provide information unless they are arrested. Refusal to provide information, however, increases the chance of your being arrested as the police officer is likely to assume you are attempting to hide significant information. Providing false information, or deliberately misleading the police is an offence which may lead to a fine or imprisonment for wasting police time.

If you are stopped you may ask the officer's name, and the name and address of the police station where they work. You are entitiled to know why you have been stopped.

The police "Codes of Practice" emphasise the need for responsible behaviour in stopping people, and remind the police that they may be called on in court to justify the use of these powers.

If you are stopped on the suspicion that you have committed (or are about to commit) an arrestable offence (e.g. assault, theft, carrying an offensive weapon) you should give your name and address but say nothing else. You do have the right to silence until you have been given legal advice. The police caution is misleading and confusing, but, you are not obliged to provide more information at this point. State clearly that you will not answer questions until you have seen a solicitor.

Powers to search

The police do not have the power to search just anyone they choose, but they can carry out a search of anyone (and the vehicle in which they are travelling) who has been arrested or is suspected of carrying: They may be called upon to justify their suspicions. "Well, m'lud, he looked like a dope fiend so I nicked him" doesn't quite wash any more, but in general it falls in the police's favour because the grounds for suspicion are incredibly loose. Something used for burglary? Oh, that would be a credit card and a flashlight. Goods on which duty has not been paid? An extra carton of cigarettes beyond your duty free allowance.

Before the search starts, the police officer should give his or her name, explain the reasons for performing the search and state clearly what he expects to find. If the search is taking place in public, the police are only allowed to examine your outer clothing. If they need to remove a jacket or coat or any other layers of clothing to continue this search, this must be done by a police officer of the same sex as you and it must be done out of the public view (e.g. in a police van or station).

If they suspect you are carrying drugs, they may want to perform a cavity search, also known as an intimate search.

The police powers of search were expanded under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. If a senior police officer believes that a serious violent incident might take place in an area, that officer can give the police the right to stop and search any person or any vehicle, to look for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments. They have this right even if the police officer has no reasonable grounds to suspect that that individual may have committed, or be be planning to commit an offence.

You are entitiled to a written record of any such search. If you are stopped in these circumstances, you will can be fined or imprisoned if you refuse to submit to a search.

Why do the police stop and search?

According to 'Stop and Search', a 1999 study by Marian FitzGerald into the practice of police stops and searches in London that was undertaken in the wake of the Macpherson inquiry:
The study shows that there is a strong consensus about the need for the power in principle to tackle crime. Public perceptions of the legitimate use of the power may go well beyond the strict terms of s1 of PACE; and many people (in all ethnic groups) would like to see it exercised more widely. In practice, the power contributes to tackling crime in three main ways:
  • It contributes directly to the detection and prevention of crime through arrests from searches. Searches have at times contributed to up to 12 per cent of arrests overall in the MPS. However, searches account for nearly all arrests for 'going equipped' and offensive weapon (i.e. to commit property crimes, including burglaries, thefts of and from cars etc).

  • Searches contribute more indirectly to the detection and prevention of crime through the intelligence they produce. At local area level, information from the search records is entered onto a central database which, as the report illustrates, is of particular value to Intelligence Unit personnel and crime analysts.

  • The power can also have a more general impact on the prevention of crime. Independent analyses conducted for this report show a significant statistical relationship between the fall in searches at the beginning of 1999 and the rise in recorded crime in London. This corroborates qualitative evidence provided by the report which is based not only on the perceptions of police officers but also of young people actually or potentially involved in crime.
The biggest problem with stops was found to be the manner of the police officer concerned. When the officer was quiet and polite, the anger levels of those stopped was low and the stops were more likely to go off without incident. But frequently officers perform stops and searches in an agressive manner, shouting at the suspect or humiliating him (it is usually a him, of 21 to 22 years old) in public. It may be hard for the police to remain calm and polite when they are being yelled at or antagonised, but that is their job. Yelling at a suspect in the street doesn't win them any support in the area, especially when the police are attempting to overcome years and years of poor communication skills, overall bad practice, and institutionalised racism.

The specific recommendations of the report were as follows:
  • Informal warnings should be given where people with no previous cautions or convictions are found in possession of cannabis. The substance should be disposed of on the spot under the supervision of a sergeant.

  • The collection and co-ordination of community intelligence generally should be improved; and available sources of intelligence should be used more systematically for the purposes of briefing officers in order to improve their efficiency in searching.

  • Arrest rates fail to measure the impact of searches; and the number of arrests alone is insufficient for this purpose. Systems should be developed to capture the yield from searches more fully.

  • Sergeants should be held directly and formally accountable for monitoring and directly supervising the search activity of the officers they are responsible for.

* general disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, a police officer or a legislator of any form. Use this advice at your own risk. It is based on reading the various Acts and the police Codes of Practice, but, the interpretations of these laws is always open to interpretation by the courts.

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