A policy report published today suggests the legality of police seizing and searching mobile phones during stop and search encounters is ambiguous. The report, produced by StopWatch, a coalition that works to promote effective, accountable and fair policing, found that while anecdotal reports of police seizing and searching mobiles phones during street stop and searches exist, there is little clarity on whether this practice is legal.
The report, ‘Call it off: are police searching mobile phones during stop and search illegally?’, examined the legal provision for police stop and searches, finding that while there are limited legal circumstances under which such a search of a phone would be legal, there are many more cases in which searching a phone would be illegal, or the legality of such a search would be ambiguous at best.
Not only this, but the report identified no source of government guidance for officers on this practice. While the majority of stop and searches which occur in England and Wales are covered by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984), the guidance provided to this Act makes no mention of this issue.
Katrina Ffrench, chief executive of StopWatch, commented on the report’s release:
'The legality or illegality of this policing practice needs swift clarification. A lack of guidance for police and citizens invites tension in every such stop, and might afford police unwarranted, possibly illegal, access to substantial amounts of personal data on those they search. With this report highlighting that there are substantial digital rights and privacy issues within policing today, it is incumbent that policy-makers act to ensure that data protection and human rights laws are not being violated.'
Chi Onwurah, Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central and shadow minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, commented:
'Since the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) was introduced more than 30 years ago, phone technology has evolved dramatically. Phones now store unprecedented amounts of personal data. Searches of phones during stop and search may therefore represent a significant invasion of privacy and substantially alter the nature of such a search. Unfortunately here as elsewhere, Government has been negligent in developing a robust framework for data control, access and sharing. It is imperative the legal status of searching phones during stop and search is clarified and guidance is published.'