To protect the public, the police are granted numerous powers in order to keep the peace. However, the behaviour of police officers is limited and if you feel they have used unlawful practices against you then it is advisable to contact a solicitor and obtain professional legal advice.
This guidance applies to the country of England only.
- General powers of the police
- Stop and account
- Stop and search
- When can the police question you?
- Powers of entry
- Your rights on arrest
- Police powers to deal with you without going to court
- Further help
1. General powers of the police
There are codes of practice that contain numerous rules about police behaviour. The police also bound by laws which state what they can and cannot do.
The law about discrimination also applies to police, and as of cosequence they cannot discriminate against citizens on the grounds of:
- gender reassignment;
- pregnancy and maternity;
- religion or belief;
- sex; or
- sexual orientation.
If the police act in a manner that is not compliant with codes of practice or law, then an aggrieved person could possibly sue them, and/or they could be prosecuted for committing a criminal offence, and/or they could be disciplined/dismissed.
This information on this page is not intended to extend to every situation and, if you should have any problems with the police, you should always obtain further and professional advice. If you are cautioned or arrested and taken to a police station you should always contact a solicitor who will advise about your rights while at the station.
2. Stop and account
While in a public place, a police officer including a police community support officer (PCSO) can stop and ask you to account for yourself. The police could ask you to account for your actions, behaviour, presence in an area or why you are carrying a certain object or objects. A PCSO must be in uniform but a police officer does not have to be. A police officer must show you their warrant card if they are not in uniform.
If the police do stop you and ask for an explanation, you are not obligated to give them your personal information but you could be asked to give them your ethnicity. The police do not have to make a record of or provide you with a receipt if they stop you. However, if a police officer decides to record the event they will state:
- the date, time and place where you were stopped;
- your ethnicity; and
- the officers name and details.
You will be offered either a copy of the record if it was written down on a paper form, or an actual receipt if the record was made electronically or via the police officer’s radio. The receipt can be used by you to request a paper or electronic copy of the full record from the police station where the officer is based within 3 months of the stop, or to make a complaint.
A police officer or PCSO does not have the power to force you to stay with them if you are stopped and asked to account for your actions.
3. Stop and search
You or a vehicle that you are in can be stopped and searched by the police if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you could be carrying:
- stolen property, drugs or weapons; or
- items that could be used to commit a crime.
Without any reasonable ground, a police officer can stop and search you within a specific area if they believe that:
- serious violence could take place; or
- offensive weapons are being carried or have been used.
You can also be stop and searched by a police officer who is looking for evidence or articles in relation to terrorism. However, they will require reasonable grounds that they will find what they are searching for, unless they are exercising particular powers authorised under the Terrorism Act 2000. Under Section 47A of The Terrorism Act 2000, an authorisation to stop and search may be made by an officer of at least Assistant Chief Constable rank where they reasonably suspect that an act of terrorism will take place in a specified area and the search is necessary to prevent it. This power allows the police to stop and search pedestrians and vehicles. The police can search anything carried by a pedestrian, any vehicle, anything carried by a driver or passenger or anything on or in a vehicle. The power does not extend to the searching of people or their clothing.
A police officer of the rank of inspector or above can, in certain circumstances, give the police permission to make stops and searches in an area for a specified amount of time so long as this is not for more than 24 hours. When in force, this permission can be used by the police to search for dangerous instruments or offensive weapons irrespective of whether they have grounds for suspecting that people are carrying these items. Permission can also be given by an officer with the rank of assistant chief constable or higher to carry out searches in an area to prevent acts of terrorism.
A police officer can only search a person if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are likely to find any of the following:
- Articles connected with terrorism
- Alcohol at or on route to a designated sporting event
- Certain types of firework
- Evidence of game and wildlife offences
- Items made, adapted or intended to damage or destroy property
- Items which could be used to commit burglary, theft or deception
- Stolen property
Police officers could also be dressed in plain clothes when they stop and search you.
In certain circumstances, a PCSO could can also stop and search you but their powers may vary from one police force to another. PCSO’s have limited powers to search you and can only carry out searches under the following two situations:
- Under the Police Reform Act 2000, PCSO’s can search individuals for alcohol and tobacco but only with that person’s consent.
- Under the Terrorism Act 2000, PCSO’s can conduct searches of vehicles under powers authorised by an Assistant Chief Constable who considers it necessary to prevent acts of terrorism, providing that the PCSO is under the supervision of a police officer.
Before any search of you or your vehicle, a police officer must take all reasonable steps to ensure that you understand the following:
- that you must stay with them and be searched;
- which particular law(s) they are using;
- their name and/or ID number;
- the police station they work from;
- why they stopped you;
- what they are looking for; and
- your right to a record of the search or a receipt.
The police officer will offer you either a copy of the record, if it was written down on a paper form, or an actual receipt if the record was made electronically or via the officer’s radio. The receipt can be used to ask for a paper or electronic copy of the full record from the police station where the officer is based 3 months of the stop, or to make a complaint.
Police officers have powers to search a vehicle, even if it is unattended. If the police search an unattended vehicle then they must leave a notice saying what they have done. If damage is caused during the vehicle search, the owner may make an application for compensation from the police force concerned.
If you are arrested following a search, the details of it will be placed on your custody record at the police station. Irrespective of your arrest, you still have a right to obtain a copy of the search record. During a stop and search within a public area, you might be asked to take off your coat/jacket and gloves. You may also have to remove any headgear and footwear if you are searched under Section 47A of the Terrorism Act but they can only require you to do so if the police take you out of view of the public, for example take you to a police station. However, this does not mean you have being arrested but are cooperating with police inquries.
A police officer may ask you for your name, address and date of birth before, during or after any search. However, you do not have to provide this information to them unless they state they are going to caution you, which does not necessarily mean they are arresting you, but failure to provide your personal information in these circumstances could then lead to your arrest.
Although a police officer is required to make a formal record of a stop and search, this does not mean you will have a police record if you are subjected to a stop and search and are then allowed to go abut your business without being reported for an offence or arrested.
Police should carry out stop and searches with courtesy and consideration and treat you with respect while making every reasonable effort to reduce any embarrassment that might be caused to you during the search.
It must be understood that stop and search is not voluntary and the police do not require your permission to search you or your personal effects. If you refuse to cooperate with a police officer then they can use reasonable force to search you but this should only be exercised as a last resort.
Searches may sometimes take time and can be an inconvenience but the process should be handled professionally and swiftly. Always try to be be patient with the police in such matters by staying calm and to speak to the officer if you any have questions.
Police officers can and often do stop and talk to members of the public all of the time. Being spoken to a police officer or PCSO does not always imply you have done something unlawful.
You have not been officially stopped by the police if, for example:
- A police officer or PCSO approaches you and talks to you about local priorities and/or issues.
- You are questioned by a police officer or PCSO, having immediately witnessed a crime, and they are trying to establish the background to it.
- A crime recently occurred in an area where you where passing through or staying and a police officer or PCSO visits your home and asks you questions on what you might have seen or heard.
You may also experience being stop by a police officer whilst driving. The Road Traffic Act 1988 provides a police officer with the power to stop any vehicle at any time and require the driver to produce their driving license and other documents such as details of insurance. A police officer can also require a driver to undergo a breath test in particular circumstances. A police officer may also talk to you about other road traffic related offences that you may have committed. In these events, these stops are not regarded as stop and searches.
4. When can a police officer question you?
Until they caution you, a police officer should not question you with a view to obtaining evidence. If you have been arrested, you must be taken to a police station before any interview can take place unless:
- delay could lead to physical harm to others
- delay could lead to interference with or harm to evidence connected with the offence
- delay would alert someone suspected of committing an offence who has not yet been arrested
- delay would hinder the recovery of property that is the subject of the offence.
If you are cautioned without having been arrested, then a police officer must inform that you are free to leave whenever you wish to.
A police officer should not question you with a view to getting evidence until they have cautioned you.
Powers of Entry
Your rights on arrest
Police powers to deal with you without going to court
Source of help
Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.