ENGLAND & WALES
Stop and search is mainly conducted under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) or Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Other powers (e.g. under the Terrorism Act 2000) exist but are less significant.
Officers can stop and search someone suspected of possession of drugs, weapons, stolen property or equipment associated with crime. They must have reasonable grounds for suspicion (seen something, intelligence received, behaviour etc.) and characteristics such as ethnicity, gender or age cannot be used as the basis for a stop and search. Officers must give the person searched key information (officer name/ID, grounds, rights etc.) and either a record of the search or a reference number so they can get access the record later. Stops should be recorded on body worn camera (BWC). Controversies include the disproportionate rate of stop searches for Black and Asian people, and whether the smell of cannabis alone constitutes sufficient grounds.
Section 60 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 allows for stop and search to be conducted for weapons or dangerous instruments in a specified area for a limited period of time (no more than 24 hours) without the need for grounds. This power is only authorised where a senior officer reasonably believes serious violence may occur.
Officers have no right to stop and question a citizen to check their identity, although an officer may stop any vehicle in order to check relevant documents (driving licence, insurance etc.) and the condition of the vehicle.
Powers allow officers to conduct a non-intimate search, removing only outer garments, at the scene. A more intimate search should be conducted at a police station.
Information from stop searches are retained by the police (age, gender, ethnicity, grounds, results) and scrutinised internally, locally by committees, community panels or advisory groups, and nationally by HMICFS and the Home Office. Anonymised data is published on the data.police.uk/data/ website and on local police force websites, for example here. BWC footage is sometimes made available for internal and external scrutiny. Complaints can be made to the police force concerned and will normally be resolved locally. Where evidence recovered during a search is used in a criminal case, the legality of the search may be subject to scrutiny as part of the case.
In Scotland, it is unlawful for a police officer to carry out the search of a person out with a specific statutory power. The statutory power to carry out a stop and search of the person is provided through various legislative acts across a range of categories including: threats to public order; the misuse of drugs and other substances; stolen property; protection of wildlife; security at airports, football matches and other events; proceeds of crime; terrorism and specific weapons including knives, bladed articles, firearms and crossbows. The relevant legislation will make provisions on what information an officer can seek from the individual subject to the search.
A Code of Practice governs the police officer’s use of powers of stop and search of the person. This includes most situations in which officers stop and search a person without first making an arrest. The code sets specific expectations, including the way in which the search is carried out, how the individual is treated, their right to information and how this is recorded. All recordable stop and searches in Scotland are recorded on the Police Scotland National Stop and Search Database. Any person who has been the subject of a recordable stop and search, can request access to a copy of the record held on the database.
Police Officers are not exempt from the law in Scotland and are bound by the Police Scotland Code of Ethics and the provisions of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights. An independent body, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) issued statutory guidance to set the requirements of police complaint handling in Scotland. This is embedded in Police Scotland’s approach, with the process subject to ongoing scrutiny by PIRC. Any member of the public can make a complaint about the police either in person, by telephone, in writing by email, letter or through an online form accessed through the Police Scotland website. Complaints against police officers and staff which are upheld can be disposed of through formal disciplinary action and, where the behaviour is criminal, through reporting to Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service for appropriate action. Every officer who carries out a relevant search of a person under the code of practice is required to provide a receipt to the person which includes information about their rights and how to make a complaint. This information is also available on the Police Scotland web site.
Northern Ireland is governed by similar powers to England and Wales under the PACE (NI) Order 1989 and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, in addition to these ‘everyday’ stop and search powers, and linked to the ongoing ‘severe’ terrorist threat in the country as defined by MI5, the Police Service of Northern Ireland enjoy suspicionless stop and search powers under the Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007 (JSA). As a separate policing jurisdiction within the UK, PSNI currently use stop and search powers at a rate of 17 per 1000 of population with a 7% arrest rate, comparted to approximately 5 per 1000 in England and Wales with a 17% arrest rate. ‘Everyday’ stop and search powers account for approximately 70% of stop and searches, while the remaining 30% are conducted under terrorist-related JSA powers (which only apply to NI) with an arrest rate of below 1%. Under 18s (children) comprise approximately 18% of PSNI stop and searches.
PSNI broadly follow UK policing standards from the College of Policing for conducting stop and search in terms of the need to provide grounds etc. for ‘everyday’ stop and search. Stops are meant to be recorded, with a receipt or reference number provided to the suspect. Body-worn cameras are gradually being rolled out by PSNI for officers, although the extent to which they are used for stop and search encounters is unclear. PSNI is subject to performance monitoring by the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB), while complaints about police actions are dealt with by the independent Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI).
PSNI performance also comes under the scrutiny of the Criminal Justice Inspection NI (CJINI). It can also request inspections from HMIC, although it is not obliged to. Only limited public data on stop and search is released by PSNI, currently restricted to policing district, gender, age and the power used. Age-related data has only been publicly available since 2017. Religion is not recorded, and ethnicity may be recorded, but is not publicly available.
Podcast Vos papiers s’il vous plait!
- Stop & Search through the eyes of young researchers
- Doing comparative research on police stops
- Researching data-driven policing
Blog Understanding the Practice of Police Stops in Europe
- Reforming Stop and Search in Scotland
- We spent seven years observing English police stop and search – here’s what we found
- Stop and Search in Scotland- Change within change
- Observing police stops
Blog Understanding the Experience of Police Stops in Europe
Workshop Improving the Governance and Practice of Police Stops (24 November 2020)