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Emmanuelle Purdon and Susannah Mengesha of Imran Khan and Partners discuss the legal position of individuals detained in the street, following the police advice released in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death.

What are your rights should you be stopped by police in the street?

The murder of Sarah Everard has triggered a debate about women’s safety and police powers. Police officer Wayne Couzens was an armed officer in the Metropolitan Police’s elite parliamentary and diplomatic protection group. He abducted Sarah Everard whilst she was walking home after visiting a friend’s home, on the premise of lawfully detaining her. Couzens has now been sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder.

Advice from the police

The Metropolitan Police has said that people should attempt to verify the “identity and intentions” of a police officer should they be stopped, but “If after all of that you feel in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are, for whatever reason, then I would say you must seek assistance – shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if you are in the position to do so calling 999”. The police advice is available in full here.

What are your rights upon being stopped/detained in the street by a police officer?

There are several powers police may use to detain a person in the street. In our experience, often people are given the impression by officers that they are not free to go when in fact there is no legal basis to detain and the stop is in effect “voluntary”. For this reason, a person stopped on the street by police should ask whether they are being detained, and if so under what police power. In the absence of a power to arrest or detain, the person is free to leave at will.

Stop and Search

One of the most common police powers used to detain people on the street is for the purpose of searching them. An officer must not search a person, even with their consent, where no power to search is applicable, other than as a condition of entry to sports grounds or other premises.

The main police search powers are:

  • To detain a person to search them for stolen or prohibited items.

The officer must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that s/he will find such items before conducting the search. Declining to answer police questions cannot of itself amount to a basis for reasonable suspicion. More information is available here.

  • To search for controlled drugs or related paraphernalia

The officer in question must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that s/he will find the relevant prohibited items before conducting the search. Being a known drug user or having previous criminal convictions does not of itself amount to a basis for reasonable suspicion. More information on this power is available here.

  • Blanket search powers to conduct searches indiscriminately in a specified area

These searches may be conducted indiscriminately, without the requirement to individually suspect the person being searched, however the power must be used for reasons connected with the reason the search power was authorised. More information on this power is available here.

Police powers should be used without unlawful discrimination as to a person’s race or sex. As a general rule a person detained under stop and search powers should ask what item is being searched for and why they personally were stopped. It should be noted there is no obligation under these search powers for an individual detained in the street to give their name or address (where a person is in charge of a vehicle or conducting a licensed activity then different rules apply). Where practicable a receipt of the search should be provided by police upon request. Searches conducted in public should not require removal of anything other than outer garments. More information about your rights on stop and search can be found here.

There are also specific search powers to discover whether a person has anything in their possession which may constitute evidence they are a terrorist. More information on these powers are available here.

Other relevant police powers

  • Antisocial behaviour powers

Police DO have powers to take someone’s name and address (but not date of birth) should they reasonably believe that a specific person has engaged in antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour is defined as doing something “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. A person stopped and questioned under this power should ask why they individually are suspected of having been involved in antisocial behaviour. More information on this power is available here

  • Coronavirus legislation

This area remains subject to rapid change. Currently there is no obligation for members of the public to give their details or account for themselves if stopped by police.

  • Breach Of The Peace

There is a common law power (not limited to police) to detain, intervene upon or even arrest a person to prevent an action likely to result in a breach of the peace.

Whilst it is hoped that police officers will follow the relevant guidance, it is our experience that not every officer will do so and there remains a possibility that challenging police conduct could result in your arrest. You should be aware of what charges could be alleged:

  • It is an offence to resist or wilfully obstruct a constable in the execution of his/her duty. “Obstruction” includes interference by physical force, threats, telling lies or giving misleading information, refusing to cooperate in removing an obstruction, or warning a person who has committed a crime so that s/he can escape detection (e.g. warning a speeding driver that there is a police trap ahead). Details of this offence are available here.

  • It is an offence to commit an assault, or battery, on an emergency worker or a person working in a public-facing role. An ‘assault’ can consist of any touching which causes the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful force upon them. Details of this offence are available here. Prior to the creation of this offence, people would have been charged with assault of a constable in the execution of their duty, however this has largely been replaced by the offence of Assaulting an Emergency Worker (which includes assault of a constable).

  • Public Order offences - There are a number of offences that relate to causing harassment, alarm or distress. More details are available here.

Arrest and Actions against the police and the state: Contact us

If you have been arrested we can provide 24 hour support. We can also advise on civil actions against the police regarding unlawful searches and periods of detention.

We can give you professional, friendly advice and guidance during what can be an extremely stressful time.

Emmanuelle Purdon is a Trainee Solicitor in the Crime Department at Imran Khan and Partners.

Susannah Mengesha is a Trainee Solicitor in the Civil and Public Law Department at Imran Khan and Partners.


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