The police possess a wide range of powers to stop and search individuals - many of which are conferred by the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984, a piece of legislation which forms the legal foundation for ‘suspicion-based’ stop and search by setting out extensive powers available to police, including those relating to investigation, arrest, detention, interrogation, searching, searching outdoors, and taking samples.
See our section 60 factsheet for a guide to ‘suspicionless’ stop and search powers.
PACE 1984, section 1
Under section 1 of PACE, a police constable may stop, detain, and search any person or vehicle in a public place, as long as the officer has ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspecting that they will find stolen or prohibited articles — such as drugs, a weapon, stolen property, prohibited fireworks, or something that could be used to commit a crime. Being stopped and searched does not mean you are being arrested.
The officer’s reasonable grounds for suspicion should be based on a two-stage test:
- The officer must have formed a genuine suspicion in their own mind that they will find the object
- The suspicion that the object will be found must be reasonable
The definition of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is contested and controversial. However, the officer’s suspicion must have an objective basis in specific facts, information, or intelligence related to the likelihood of finding the object in question.
Police officers must also adhere to the codes of practice that accompany PACE, notably Code A, which expands on the meaning of ‘reasonable suspicion’ and covers the principles governing stop and search rules.
Stop and search or stop and account?
A ‘stop’ is when a police officer or a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) stops you and asks questions. This is known as ‘stop and account’, which is not the same thing as a stop and search, but is often used by police as an alternative to a formal stop and search.
To work out whether you are being stopped and searched, ask the officer, ‘Am I being detained?’. If the answer is no, you are free to leave. You can only be stopped and searched if a police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that you are in possession of a prohibited item or that you have been involved in a crime.
During a stop and search
When stopped, the police should tell you a number of things prior to carrying out the search. If this procedure is not followed, the search is likely to have been unlawful. Officers should explicitly tell you:
- The reason they want to search you — a clear explanation of the reasons for the search
- What the specific legal basis of the search is
- What they expect to find from the search — the object they're looking for
- Their name and ID number or warrant card (if they are not in uniform)
- The police station they are based at
- Where and how you can access a copy of the record of the stop and search
Some searches may involve the removal of clothing. These searches — named 'strip searches' — must be done out of public view.
- A superficial search: could include the search of an outer coat, jacket, or gloves, with the officer placing their hands in the pockets of the person’s clothing, or feeling around the inside of collars, socks, and shoes
- A thorough search: this can entail the removal of a shirt — but must be done out of public view, for example in a police van, or at a police station
- A strip search: this involves the exposure of intimate parts of the body, and must be carried out at the police station or other nearby location out of public view — but not in a police vehicle
Officers also have to respect your rights under the Equality Act 2010 during a stop and search. This means that you cannot be stopped purely on the basis of your race, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, religion, or faith.
PACE is not the only piece of legislation that gives police the power to stop and search you. Other stop and search legislation linked to PACE includes:
- The Terrorism Act 2000, sections 43 and 47a (which is governed by a different code of practice)
- The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, section 23, which covers searches for controlled drugs
- The Firearms Act 1968, section 47
In certain circumstances, police also have powers to use ‘suspicionless’ stop and search — where there is no requirement for an officer to have ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspicion – under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (see our section 60 factsheet).
Police stop and search powers had no statutory basis in the UK until 1824, when the Vagrancy Act was passed. The Act – parts of which remain in force today - gave police wide powers to stop and search anyone they deemed ‘suspicious’, leading to the nickname ‘sus laws’.
The old sus laws were still in use more than 150 years later, and were notoriously deployed in the early 1980s during ‘Operation Swamp 81’ – a police operation designed to crack down on street crime in Brixton, where residents were suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and other serious economic problems as a result of the ongoing recession.
Tensions between the police and communities in south London were also high as a result of police failures following the New Cross house fire earlier in the year, police aggression and discrimination, and a new racialised moral panic about ‘mugging’ fuelled by politicians and the British tabloid media. Reportedly named after Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “[…] people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture” as a result of immigration from Commonwealth countries, Operation Swamp targeted mostly young Black men, with police making around 1,000 stops in the Brixton area over a period of six days.
The overuse of these ‘sus law’ powers directly led to the Brixton riots, and, during the summer of 1981, rioting broke out in other towns and cities across the UK too: Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool – all stemming from tension between the police and communities of colour. In response to the Brixton riots, home secretary William Whitelaw commissioned the Scarman report, which was published the same year.
Although the report found clear evidence of disproportionate and indiscriminate use of police stop and search powers, and recognised the complex political, social, and economic factors that led to the outbreak of rioting, it explicitly denied the existence of institutional racism – which wouldn’t be acknowledged until the Macpherson report 18 years later.
Some of Lord Scarman’s recommendations were enshrined in law via the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act, which created a new code for police behaviour and the Police Complaints Authority, and established the legal basis of many of the stop and search powers used by police in England and Wales today. These powers have since been amended by various pieces of legislation, but still form the foundation of suspicion-based stop and search powers.
Four decades on from the passing of the PACE Act, stop and search continues to be one of the most controversial police powers in the UK. The government is relentlessly pursuing their mission of expanding stop and search powers to crack down on protestors, activists, and anyone else caught up in the far-reaching legislation they're desperate to enact.
Sources and further reading
- Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and corresponding Codes of Practice
- Terrorism Act 2000
- Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
- Firearms Act 1968
- Equality Act 2010
- StopWatch’s guide to section 60 (suspicionless) stop and search
- StopWatch’s guide to making a complaint against the police
If you have been treated unfairly
If the rules governing stop and search practices have not been followed, the lawfulness of a given stop and search is questionable. You have the right to complain if you believe that a police officer has misused their powers of stop and search based on an assumption, generalisation, or in a discriminatory way. See our easy-to-use guide for making complaints against the police.