Stop and search is a common police tactic that's used all over the world to combat crime. Police officers in England and Wales are allowed to carry out searches in designated areas without requiring authorisation from a senior officer. They only need reasonable grounds to believe that a person might be involved in a crime, or that they might be in possession of a prohibited item to stop them and conduct a search.

Prohibited items include weapons, drugs, or stolen property. Depending on the results of the search, the police officers have the authorisation to arrest a person on the spot.

However, the police officer must be uniformed, and they must show the person their warrant card when they stop you and before they begin the search. Due to the rising rate of crime and terrorist activities, the UK government has expanded the circumstances in which police officers can conduct a stop and search.

The tactic can now be used without any suspicion of criminal activity.

Stop and search types and questions

Both a police community support officer (PCSO) in uniform and a police officer can stop a person, but only a police officer has the right to conduct a search. A person can be stopped anywhere, whether it's a public place or in a vehicle. There are specific questions that a police officer might ask, which include, but aren't limited to:

  • Your name
  • Your purpose of being in the area
  • Where you are going

A person is well within their rights to refuse to stop and answer the questions if they haven't done anything suspicious. Your refusal cannot be used as an excuse to search and arrest you unless there is very strong probable cause, or the officer is reporting you for an offence.

Responsibilities of a police officer during a stop and search

The police officer can conduct a search only when there are reasonable grounds to believe that you are a suspicious person and might be involved in a crime.

A prerequisite for 'reasonable grounds' is not necessary if the search has been approved by a senior police officer. However, they must always be respectful and polite and handle the process professionally and quickly.

They must also provide some vital information to the person they have stopped and intend to search. This includes:

  • Their full name and the name of their police station and their warrant ID number
  • Why they have stopped you for a search; for example, if it looks like you are hiding something dangerous.
  • What made them chose you and what they expect to find
  • The law that states that they can legally stop and search you
  • A copy of their record of the search

Your rights and other important information

An officer can only ask you to remove outer clothing in a public place. In case a more thorough search is required, they must take you to a place that is out of public view.

They have the right to put their hands in your pockets, ask you to turn the pockets inside out and give you a pat-down.

If you feel uncomfortable about the search, you can ask for more privacy. Should the officers fail to provide that, you have the right to ask them to put that in the record of the search. If you have a complaint about the search process, you can use the information from the record and lodge the complaint either by telephone or in writing at your local police station.

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