Police possess a number of stop and search powers that allow them to stop and search a person for things like drugs, weapons, and stolen property. These powers are restricted in various ways — for example, in most cases, police must have 'reasonable suspicion' based on objective information in order to stop and search a person legally.
However, some situations that might feel like a stop and search might actually be what's known as a 'stop and account': when police stop you and ask you to account for your behaviour or presence in an area, but have no legal power or grounds to carry out a search. A 'stop and account' is not the same thing as a stop and search, although it is often used by police as an alternative to a formal stop and search.
In a 'stop and account' situation, police cannot detain you (make you stay with them), nor are you legally required to answer any questions they might ask you.
What is stop and account?
A ‘stop’ occurs when a police officer or a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) stops you and asks you questions. This is known as a ‘stop and account’, and is not the same as a stop and search. You are free to leave at any time during a stop and account.
A police officer might stop you and ask:
- What your name is
- What you're doing in the area
- What you're carrying
- Where you're going
You do not have to answer any of these questions. If there is no other reason to suspect you, an officer does not have the power to force you to stay with them and answer.
If you are stopped by an officer out of uniform, they must show you their warrant card.
You should not be stopped solely on the basis of:
- Your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or faith
- The way you look or dress, or the language you speak
- Because you have committed an offence in the past
Stop and search
The police possess a range of legal powers to stop and search individuals; these powers can be described as either 'suspicion-based' or 'suspicionless'.
'Suspicion-based' powers allow an officer to stop you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you have been involved in a crime or are in possession of a prohibited item (like drugs, weapons, or stolen property). 'Suspicionless' powers allow police (in particular restricted circumstances) to search you without the need for 'reasonable suspicion'.
Stop and account or stop and search?
To work out if you are being formally stopped and searched, or just subject to a stop and account, you can ask the officer: 'Am I being detained?' You can only be detained if a full stop and search is taking place, so if the answer is no, you are free to leave. You do not have to give your name or address. An officer cannot stop you in order to attempt to find grounds to escalate the encounter to a full search.
While a 'stop and account' is not a stop and search, different search powers have different limitations and requirements. For more in-depth information on these search powers, see our other factsheets here:
- Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), section 1
- Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, section 60
- Terrorism Act 2000, section 43, 47A, and Schedule 7
Police officers have been stopping members of the public in an 'informal' manner since the very beginning of police history. ‘Stop and account’ is not a formal police power: rather, it describes any instance where police stop a member of the public and ask them to account for their behaviour or actions, or ask the person what they’re carrying, where they’re going, what they’re doing in the area, or any other questions about their conduct.
Although ‘stop and account’ is not the same thing as ‘stop and search’, the two lie on a continuum of police-initiated contact, and the former is often used by police as an alternative to the latter. As a formal stop and search involves the exercise of a statutory power, the practice is subject to certain limitations: for example, in most cases police must have ‘reasonable suspicion’ to stop someone under PACE section 1 powers (the most commonly used search power), while ‘suspicionless’ powers (like CJPOA section 60 or section 47A of the Terrorism Act) can only be authorised under certain conditions and within a certain timeframe. Full searches must also be recorded by officers, made available to the person being searched, and then published as part of a larger set of stop and search statistics. By contrast, there are no restrictions or safeguards on the practice of ‘stop and account’, no ‘best practice’ guidelines or framework, and, since 2011, police forces have not been required to make a record of these kinds of stops.
Research carried out in the 1990s showed that police officers were frequently circumventing the requirement to record a full stop and search by using their informal stop and account powers instead, relying on the average person’s lack of knowledge about the specific legal and procedural differences between stop and account and stop and search.
In 1999, the Macpherson report recognised the link between stop and account and stop and search. The report specifically recommended that non-statutory stops (i.e., stop and accounts) be recorded by police. It wasn’t until April 2005 that this recommendation was realised, when the regulatory framework governing formal stop and searches was extended to cover stop and accounts, forcing 45 police forces to start making a record of these encounters — not just formal stop and searches.
Four years later, this requirement was watered down, changing the minimum information required for recording purposes to self-defined ethnicity only. However, police forces still had to give the person being stopped a record of the encounter and still had to submit data relating to stop and accounts for publication.
Two years after that, changes to the PACE code of practice made under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government (with Theresa May as home secretary) removed the 2005 requirement to record stop and accounts altogether. Instead, Chief Constables would have the discretion to choose whether to continue recording these stops. By 2012, only eight police forces were doing so.
In 2019, freedom of information requests submitted to 44 police forces found that only three forces were still recording stop and accounts, but 'even this data is patchy: the numbers jump around implausibly, or significant numbers of people have their ethnicity recorded as 'Unknown'' (Missing Numbers, 2019).
Not surprisingly, the practice of stop and account throws up many of the same problems as stop and search and traffic stops. Those from ethnic minorities are far more likely than white people to be targeted. Police rely on (and take advantage of) a lack of widespread public understanding about police powers (as evidenced by research carried out by YouGov in 2022 which asked 'Can Britons correctly identify their rights if they're stopped and searched by the police?') — for example, officers don't have to inform you that you're free to leave at any time during a stop and account, and many people assume that they must answer any questions an officer might ask them. Finally, inadequate — or indeed non-existent — recording practices allow police forces to evade transparency, accountability, and analysis.
For more than a decade now, StopWatch have campaigned for changes to be made in this respect — but so far, calls for stop and accounts to be recorded in the same way as full searches have been ignored by those with the power to implement change.