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Stop and Search and the Law

One of the most controversial and most criticised police powers, “stop and search” is a power given to the police by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) to stop people and detain them in order to search them. 

The College of Policing says that “The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals without exercising their power of arrest.”

According to ‘Police Powers to stop and search: your rights’ at Gov.uk “The police can stop and question you at any time – they can search you depending on the situation.” This is an important distinction.

A police officer has powers to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ (‘suspicion-based stop and search’) to suspect you’re carrying:

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

 

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds (a Section 60 or ‘suspicion-less stop and search’) if it has been approved by a senior police officer. This can happen if it is suspected that:

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

 

The law is quite confusing and there appears (from firsthand reports) to be some ‘interpretation’ being used by police, so please use this information as a guide and be aware that while certain procedures must be followed officers may give widely differing reasons for conducting a stop and search.

Perhaps especially relevant to monitors and sabs, police can also stop someone if there’s been violence or disorder in the area (eg hunt supporters have caused trouble at a hunt parade) or if an individual matches the description of someone they are looking for.

Police have the power to stop and search an individual if an officer has ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that individual may have been involved in a crime, or think that they are in possession of a prohibited item (including drugs, weapons and stolen property). Note that police body worn cameras will be activated during a stop and search.

A police officer doesn’t always have to be in uniform to make a stop and search but if they’re not wearing uniform they must show their warrant card. A police community support officer (PCSO) must be in uniform when they stop and question an individual.

An individual can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer and if

  • serious violence could take place
  • the individual is  carrying a weapon or has used one
  • the individual is in a specific location or area where the police are searching people for a limited time because there is a belief that serious violence might take place or people are carrying weapons (for example, a protest)

 

Note that in Scotland under s65 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 an individual can’t be asked to volunteer or consent to be searched. A police officer must have a warrant or reasonable grounds. An exception to this is where an individual has agreed to a search as a condition of entering or attending a venue or event, such as a music festival.

 

Before a search a police officer must tell the individual:

  • their name and police station
  • what they expect to find, for example drugs
  • the reason they want to make the search (for example if it looks like something is being hidden)
  • why they are legally allowed to search
  • that the individual can have a record of the search, and if this isn’t possible at the time how they can get a copy

 

A police officer can ask an individual to remove their coat, jacket or gloves. If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as the person being searched.

 

A stop and search is not an arrest, but depending on what the police find during a search an arrest may take place.

A police community support officer (PCSO) must be in uniform when they stop and question you. A police officer doesn’t always have to be in uniform but if they’re not wearing uniform they must show you their warrant card.

Section 10 of the Public Order Act 2023 expands existing suspicion-based stop and search powers.

Protect the Wild has heard concerning firsthand reports that police are using these powers to stop and search activists at eg Boxing Day Hunt Parade protests.

Essentially Section 10 says that if a police officer believes that a person is carrying items which would enable them to commit certain offences defined by the Public Order Act, they can stop and search that person.

The offences are:

  • Locking on
  • Causing serious disruption by tunnelling
  • Obstructing major transport works
  • Interfering with the operation of key national infrastructure
  • Committing wilful obstruction of a highway, and, in doing so, causing serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation (see section 137 of the Highways Act 1980)
  • Intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance (see section 78 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022)

 

The Act defines prohibited items as those ‘for use in the course of or in connection with an offence’. It’s not currently clear what sort of items officers might look for but might include padlocks and super glue (for lock-ons and obstruction), or pickaxes and shovels (for digging). Since ‘causing public nuisance’ is one of the offences, objects like megaphones, speakers, or even placards could also be included.

Legal advice maintains that creating noise or disruption is not automatically classed as ‘causing public nuisance’. The particulars of this offence are made out if a person, by act or omission, creates a risk of, or causes ‘serious harm to the public or a section of the public, or obstructs the exercise or enjoyment of their rights.

The acts that constitute ‘serious harm’ are exhaustive and encompass: death, personal injury or disease; loss of, or damage to, property; and/or serious distress, annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenity.

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives police the right to search people without reasonable grounds (ie ‘suspicion-less stop and search’).

Section 60 is a unique power intended to prevent serious violence or the commission of offences involving the use of weapons or dangerous instruments and must only be applied where its use can be justified. Section 60 can only be used in a defined area at a specific time when a senior officer believes there is a possibility of serious violence, or weapons are involved

Section 60 searches can only be carried out by a uniformed police officer, and they must have been authorised by a senior police officer of at least the rank of Inspector (or temporary Inspector).

To authorise Section 60 ‘stop and searches’, the senior police officer must reasonably believe that:

  • incidents involving serious violence may take place in the officer’s area – and authorisation will help to prevent them, or
  • an incident involving serious violence has taken place in the officer’s area and that a weapon used in the incident is being carried in the area – and authorisation will help to find the weapon, or
  • people are carrying weapons in the officer’s area without good reason.

In England and Wales stop and search is not voluntary. A police officer who has reasonable grounds for suspicion can stop and detain a person in order to conduct a search.

  • There should be a basis for that suspicion which must be based on facts, information, and intelligence which are relevant to the likelihood of finding an article of a certain kind.

Note though that in Scotland being asked to consent to a search is illegal, and if you’ve been asked to consent to a search by the police you can refuse to allow the search to take place and make a complaint about the police officer(s).

Under s65 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 you can’t be asked to volunteer or consent to be searched. A police officer must have:

  • a warrant or
  • reasonable grounds.

 

An exception to this is where you have agreed to a search when entering or attending a venue or event, such as a music festival, because the event organiser has made it a condition of entry (it may be in the ‘small print’ or terms and conditions of your ticket).

Stop and search is NOT the same as an arrest and does not typically lead to arrest, but government figures for 2022 state that “Of 526,024 searches [carried out in England and Wales] under section 1 PACE (and associated legislation), 66,772 led to an arrest. While the volume of arrests is 18% lower than the previous year, the arrest rate increased from 11% to 13%.”
 

Police officers will ask for your name, address and date of birth. You are not legally required to give this information unless the officer says they’re reporting you for an offence when you are. Note though that while refusal is legal it will not make an officer ‘happy’.

Everyone who is stopped or searched will also be asked to give their ethnic background. Again, you don’t have to answer, but the officer is required to ask and record ethnicity so that community representatives can monitor whether stop and search powers are being used fairly.

A police officer making a stop and search can ask you to take off your coat, jacket or gloves.

An officer might ask you to take off other clothes and anything you’re wearing for religious reasons – for example a veil or turban.

  • If they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view (or ask if you would like to eg ‘go somewhere more private’).
  • If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you.

No, the police do not necessarily need a warrant to speak with an individual, however, they must ensure that they have filled out the correct paperwork: “Schedule 2 Part 1 Para. 2 Data Protection Act 2018 Exemption”,

A Schedule 2 exemption does not provide a statutory requirement to disclose information, nor do permissive legislation such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or the Crime and Disorder Act 1988. Confirm that the officer asking for the information is doing so to prevent or detect a crime or prosecute an offender. 

If a Schedule 2 exemption is claimed by an officer, get this in writing, signed by a senior officer, and ensure there is: 

  • A clear indication that the police are confident that they are working within the framework of the Data Protection ACt (DPA) and will satisfy all relevant DPA requirements 
  • Clarification on whether informing the individual about the disclosure would prejudice the investigation 
  • A clear description of the specific information that is requested.

Before you are searched by a police officer they must:

  • give you their name and police station;
  • explain what they expect to find on you, for example drugs or weapons;
  • explain the reason they want to conduct the search, for example if it looks like something is being hidden;
  • explain why they are legally allowed to make the search (in other words what laws allow a search to take place);
  • tell you that you can have a record of the search, and if this isn’t possible at the time how you can get a copy (usually by email or by attending a police station in person).

According to the Metropolitan Police website:

Body Worn Video (BWV) cameras (small, visible devices worn attached to the officers’ uniform) are issued to all officers who come into contact with the public and are used to capture both video and audio evidence when officers are attending all types of incidents.

Officers activate their cameras at the start of an incident or encounter, and under normal circumstances will continue to record until it’s no longer ‘proportionate or necessary’ or another system takes over, eg CCTV within a police station. When it’s recording, flashing red lights will appear and officers will make people aware that they are being recorded.

The use of BWV is incident specific; unless they’re part of a specific operation, officers won’t be recording as part of normal patrolling, but officers will almost always use a camera when they are:

  • stopping a vehicle

  • going somewhere to arrest someone

  • searching a property, land or a vehicle

  • performing a stop and search

  • attending a critical incident

  • using force against someone or someone’s property

  • attending a domestic abuse response.

 
Video footage is only retained for 30 days unless required for investigative, complaints and other police purposes.
 
The police do not have to get consent to film an individual, but anyone who has been recorded has a right to request to view the footage.

The police do not have to get consent to film an individual, but anyone who has been recorded has a right to request to view the footage.

Lawyers report that clients frequently ask whether they should hand over their phones to the police when requested, especially after the enactment of ‘PCSAC’, The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. They suggest that rather than automatically complying without question, talk to a lawyer first.

We’ve listed several (slightly confusing) sources of information on this below – which seems to suggest that the advice ‘to talk to a lawyer first’ is good advice!

 

College of Policing

In ‘Extraction of material from digital devices‘ on the College of Policing website, says that ” New legislation [ie PCSAC] now standardises how and when the police can lawfully extract information from an electronic device if it has been voluntarily provided.” and that “an authorised person” can exercise the extraction of information powers for the purposes of:

  • preventing crime
  • detecting crime
  • investigating crime
  • prosecuting crime
  • helping to locate a missing person
  • protecting a child or an at-risk adult from neglect or physical, mental or emotional harm.
 
It goes on to say that “in all cases, requests to extract information held on an electronic device are only made when necessary and proportionate, in line with a reasonable line of enquiry.”
 

 

PCSAC

Chapter 3 of The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 details ‘Extraction of information from electronic devices’, and section 1 says that:

(1)An authorised person may extract information stored on an electronic device from that device if—

(a)a user of the device has voluntarily provided the device to an authorised person, and

(b)that user has agreed to the extraction of information from the device by an authorised person.

This should mean that whether the police have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re involved in a crime or not they aren’t legally allowed to look through a phone unless they have the owner’s permission or they have obtained necessary legal documents relating to terrorism or child sex offences.

 

Unlocking a phone

Similarly, under most circumstances, the police cannot make someone unlock their phone so they can search it. If an indvidual does not want to unlock their phone for the police, they won’t usually be obliged to do so.

  • a potential exception is if police suspect that the phone an individual is carrying has been stolen and the reason for stopping you is to confirm whether this is the case.
  • If a phone is seized after the police have obtained a search warrant for an address, then the police may be able to seize and search it if they think it may contain information they are looking for.

 

RIPA

Police may choose to use Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). This makes it an offence to refuse to provide access to a phone and could lead to arrest and prosecution.

A RIPA notice could be served if the police believe that:

  • You have the password or PIN Code
  • The notice is essential, such as if it protects national security
  • The notice is proportionate
  • The required data cannot be obtained using other methods

Failing to comply with a RIPA notice could lead to a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison.

 

Yes, you can get a record of a stop and search.

In fact, the police are required to give you a written record of the search, which should include: the date, time and place of the stop and search, the officer’s details, the reason for the stop and search, the outcome, and your description if you refused to provide your personal details.

This does not have to be given to you at the time, and the record may be sent as an email or collected in person at the officer’s police station.

While the police should keep records themselves, it is advisable to keep your own copy in case you want to make a complaint at a later date and the police ‘misplace’ theirs.

You can’t refuse a stop and search in the UK, but if you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly, or been discriminated against, you have the right to make a complaint. You can do so on local police force websites, which is the easiest way to make a formal complaint.

You can also complain in person at the police station by asking to speak to the duty police officer.

If you’re unhappy with the outcome of your complaint, the advice is to speak with Citizens Advice or the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

It is common knowledge that of course animal rights activists are not the primary targets of stop and search. While perhaps outside the scope of Protectors of the Wild it is interesting to note the following government statistics:

“Males aged 15-19 had the highest rate of stop and search, at 70 stop and searches per 1,000 population in the year ending March 2022.

Based on self-defined ethnicity, individuals from a black or black British background were searched at a rate 6.2 times higher than that of those from a white ethnic group (compared with 7.0 times in the previous year), across England and Wales. Individuals identifying as Asian or Asian British were searched at a rate 2.1 times that of those from a white ethnic group (compared with 2.4 in the previous year). Individuals identifying as mixed ethnicity were searched at a rate 2.3 times that of those from a white ethnic group (compared with 2.4 in the previous year). People from other ethnic groups were searched at a rate 2.7 times higher than that of those from a white ethnic group, the same as the previous year. These differences do not account for different likelihoods of being either a suspect or a victim of crime.”

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.