Police abuse of stop and search powers

Many may think that ‘stop and search’ powers are too easily open to abuse by bigoted, or even simply bored Police officers with too much power and too much time on their hands.

Stop & search data recently released for England & Wales covering March 2020 – March 2021 (i.e the height of the Covid pandemic and period of the two national lockdowns) showed a rise of 24% to almost 700,000 instances compared with the previous year. Eyebrows might legitimately be raised at the apparent discrepancy between far less people being on the streets, crime dropping and yet the number of searches increasing – suggesting that the rise had more to do with Police officers with time to spare and an inclination to fill that time with the exercise of their powers, rather than there being objectively reasonable grounds for the search in each individual case; this is borne out by the fact that whilst the number of searches rose, the percentage of such searches resulting in an arrest fell from 13% to 11%.

The same statistics also continue to demonstrate the strikingly disproportionate use of the power against Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups (BAME people). 32% of all stop and searches for the year 2020-21 were of BAME males aged 15- 34,  despite that cohort only comprising 2.6% of the population as a whole. 

Here is one of the many stories which lies behind such statistics; albeit that this event took place in the previous year (2019- 20), it tells an age old and continuing story of the interface between authoritarian tendencies, ingrained racist assumptions, and a disrespect for the law they are supposed to be upholding when it does not facilitate such impulses, amongst many Police officers. 

My client Tyrone is a young Black man in his early 20s who resides in the greater London area.

In December 2019, Tyrone was a front seat passenger in a car being driven by his friend Steven, who is also Black. 

The two young men drove past a Police car on Sanderson Road, shortly before turning into the driveway of 94 Sanderson Road, where Tyrone lives with his mother. Tyrone and Steven alighted from the car, and started to walk towards the house; it was raining hard.

The Police car, for reasons unknown but which can be guessed at, had followed Tyrone and Steven’s vehicle, and now pulled up outside the house, and two Metropolitan Police officers, PC Connolly and PC Burns, jumped out. Shortly afterwards, a third officer, PC Gordon, also got out of the car. Tyrone firmly believes that if the Police had seen a car containing two white men, they simply would not have followed it in this fashion, but sadly experience has taught him that the Police “hold negative stereotypical beliefs and assumptions about young black men, namely that they carry knives, sell drugs and/or are involved in gang activity.” 

PC Burns accused ‘whoever had been driving the car’ of speeding; it was clear he did not know which of the two it was. In any event, Tyrone immediately disputed this false accusation; they would have had no reason to speed in such close proximity to Tyrone’s house (being about to make a tight turn onto a driveway which already contained another vehicle), and furthermore it was raining and the road had speed bumps.  Tyrone had no doubt that the officers had concocted the ‘speeding’ allegation in an attempt to give a gloss of legitimacy to their actions. 

PC Burns then asked Tyrone “Where do I know you from?”

At this point, Tyrone realised that he vaguely recognised the Officer from an incident that had occurred two months before, when he had been stopped and searched on the street, and then taken to a Police Station and subjected to a further strip search.

Before waiting for an answer, PC Burns declared – “You’ve been nicked before, I’ve arrested you before.”Tyrone asked, “For what?”  and PC Burns asserted that he knew Tyrone’s face.   Tyrone legitimately felt that he was the victim of racial profiling.

PC Burns then asked if Tyrone was the owner of the car.  Tyrone explained that it was his friend’s and that his friend had been driving – which Steven confirmed. 

Tyrone then told the officers that he was now “at home”and asked Steven to knock on the door so as to alert his mother as to what was going on.

PC Burns, apparently no longer interested in the supposed motoring offence, then declared that he was detaining Tyrone “under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act” and proceeded to demand that Tyrone give him his hands, and handcuffed him to the front. 

Simultaneously, PC Connolly had detained Steven and had likewise placed him in handcuffs.

Tyrone’s mother now emerged from the house and Tyrone called out to her “Oi, mum tell these lot, tell them, tell them.” (i.e that he did indeed live at this address). Understandably, Tyrone’s mother was in a state of shock and anger at what was unfolding on the driveway of her house. 

PC Burns now stated that Tyrone was being detained “under section 1” of PACE, but failed to give any specific details of what the grounds for the search were, or indeed what the object of the search actually was, under that power.

Tyrone again protested that he was at his home address.

Both Tyrone and his mother were now verbally, and correctly, challenging PC Burns as to his search grounds. PC Burns maintained that that he and his colleagues had“Seen these males drive at a very high speed …….., there’s a lot of knife crime around here at the moment and they jumped out of the car very quickly.” It was the vaguest of excuses – and left unspoken was what was almost certainly the determining factor in this incident – the skin colour of my client and his companion. 

PC Burns then searched Tyrone, and whilst he did so, Tyrone’s mother asked the Officer to explain why her son – who was offering no physical resistance – had been handcuffed. PC Burns falsely accused Tyrone of having been “aggressive” and also complained that “he was talking quite loud to me” before further asserting, apparently without any objective basis, that he thought Tyrone had “weapons” on him. 

When his search of Tyrone proved negative, PC Burns then announced that it was necessary to search Steven’s car and started looking for the car keys, apparently believing that they had been put through the house letterbox.

Tyrone’s mother disputed that the keys were in the house and stepped into the hallway of her home, where PC Burns followed uninvited.  The keys were not located.

Tyrone’s mother was understandably indignant at the officers heavy handed and unlawful actions, and advised PC Burns that she would be filing a complaint and, again, pointed out that the Officers were on private property.

The officers continued to wilfully ignore this fact and,discovering that it was actually unlocked, proceeded tosearch Steven’s car.

Finally, after approximately 20 minutes, PC Burns released Tyrone from his handcuffs, though not before injury had been caused – Tyrone’s hands were painful and sore. 

Worse than that physical discomfort however, was the degrading emotional impact of this event upon Tyrone, who later described being left feeling “worthless, frustrated, angry and disappointed…I feel that my words and version of events which is the truth carries no weight against theirs. Under these circumstances I do not and cannot trust the Police.”

Nothing further had been said about the alleged motoring offence (speeding) which was apparently the reason for the officers interest in the two friends in the first place; only adding to suspicions that this was, all along, a bogus justification. 

Tyrone’s mother subsequently lodged a complaint on his behalf. Following investigation, it was admittedthat the stop and search had been unlawful (albeit that the Complaint Report padded out that admission with a variety of ‘excuses’).

What Powers Do The Police Have Under Section 1 PACE? 

Under the heading “Power of constable to stop and search persons, vehicles etc”, Section 1 of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides as follows- 

(1)A constable may exercise any power conferred by this section—

(a)in any place to which at the time when he proposes to exercise the power the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission; or

(b)in any other place to which people have ready access at the time when he proposes to exercise the power but which is not a dwelling.

(2)Subject to subsection (3) to (5) below, a constable—

(a)may search—

(i)any person or vehicle;

(ii)anything which is in or on a vehicle,

for stolen or prohibited articles, any article to which subsection (8A) below applies or any firework to which subsection (8B) below applies] ; and

(b)may detain a person or vehicle for the purpose of such a search.

(3)This section does not give a constable power to search a person or vehicle or anything in or on a vehicle unless he has reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will find stolen or prohibited articles, any article to which subsection (8A) below applies or any firework to which subsection (8B) below applies. 

(4)If a person is in a garden or yard occupied with and used for the purposes of a dwelling or on other land so occupied and used, a constable may not search him in the exercise of the power conferred by this section unless the constable has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a)that he does not reside in the dwelling; and

(b)that he is not in the place in question with the express or implied permission of a person who resides in the dwelling.

(5)If a vehicle is in a garden or yard occupied with and used for the purposes of a dwelling or on other land so occupied and used, a constable may not search the vehicle or anything in or on it in the exercise of the power conferred by this section unless he has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a)that the person in charge of the vehicle does not reside in the dwelling; and

(b)that the vehicle is not in the place in question with the express or implied permission of a person who resides in the dwelling.

‘Prohibited articles’ are defined later in the same Section of PACE as including “offensive weapons” (as one would naturally assume), and this was indeed the reason belatedly provided by PC Burns for his detention and search of Tyrone – but the crucial restriction on such a search power (even where reasonable grounds do otherwise exist) is that it cannot be exercised on the grounds of a private dwelling, or in any vehicle parked thereon, unless the person being searched, or who is in charge of the vehicle, either doesn’t live in the house, or is not a guest of one of its inhabitants

Commentary

Section 1 of PACE thus makes it entirely clear that people cannot be lawfully stopped and searched under that power if they are at the house where they live (which includes, of course, any private land attached to the house, such as a garden or driveway), or are a guest of its residents. But PC Burns, as with all too many of his Policing colleagues, chose to put the arbitrary exercise of his own authority way ahead of small matters such as the letter of the law, despite being repeatedly advised by Tyrone and his mother as to the truth of the situation. 

To racial profiling, and a search lacking any proper grounds, was therefore added trespass to land, and an apparent contempt for that age old maxim “An Englishman’s home is his castle” – which emphasises the importance of preserving the privacy and integrity of our homes from intrusion by the State, and which was the very legal ethic which Sections 1(4) – (5) of PACE are enshrining.

But perhaps Tyrone and his family were not English enough in the eyes of the Metropolitan Police, for that principle to apply to them?

As Tyrone wrote in his complaint- “From the beginning I informed the Police that I was at my house, despite this they chose to ignore that statement. Even when my mum came out and it was obvious that I lived at the house, they continued to search me and the private land that I was on, citing S1 PACE. This is despite them knowing or being expected to know as Police officers that S1 PACE was not applicable in that circumstance. I consider this to also be discriminatory and that the Police knew that their actions were unlawful, but chose not to apply the law correctly to me as I am a young black male, I believe they would not have treated a white male at his house under the same circumstances, in the same way and that they would have acted in accordance with the law.”

I feel that the Police can treat me as they want and get away with it and my rights are deliberately ignored because they will cover up their true actions, make false allegations and not apply the law correctly towards me…”

I believe Tyrone was correct about this, on multiple grounds-

·         The first reason given by the officers for stopping Tyrone and his friend was that their car “shot off so quickly”

· When PC Burns placed Tyrone in handcuffs he had not attempted to deliver any of the requisite “GOWISELY” information regarding the grounds & purpose of the search, other than to very generically state that Tyrone was “detained under Section 1 of PACE” – this was entirely insufficient as the object of the search (e.g a weapon) has to be specified.

·         In any event, Tyrone had already, and repeatedly, made it clear to the officers that he was at his home address – but they continued regardless, supremely indifferent to this crucial fact. 

·         Tyrone knew his rights, and repeatedly questioned PC Burns as to what he was being searched for – the officer however continued to hide behind the “Section 1 PACE” mantra without providing any further details (making it sound as if the officer wanted to search Tyrone for a copy of the legislation…)

·         Then, when Tyrone’s mother asked the same question – about the grounds/ purpose of the search – PC Burns replied that he would explain the grounds after he had finished the search (revealing that he didn’t know what he was looking for, and was evidently hoping the search would prove self- justifying, and give him the grounds he lacked to lawfully carry it out in the first place…)

·         Finally, after yet further questioning by Tyrone and his mother, PC Burns specified “weapons” as the object of the search. It was quite clear that all the officer had to go on was an assumption based on racial stereotyping, rather than a suspicion based on individual behaviour. 

The Police in response to Tyrone’s complaint made the following concessions to him, all borne out by the irrefutable evidence from the officers’ body cameras –

·         You are clearly within the grounds of the dwelling, as is the vehicle in question. 

·         You identify the dwelling to be your home and do so on more than one occasion…reinforced by your mother. 

·         Officers, nevertheless, continue to search both yourself and the vehicle for weapons. 

·         The driving matter is overlooked and forgotten about. 

·         Officers failed to tell you why you were being searched, and what they were looking for.

The Complaint Investigation report also, however, did its best to excuse and exonerate the officers as far as possible, and dismissed any suggestion of discrimination on the part of PC Burns, despite statistics showing that of the 27 stop and searches which that officer carried out between March – September 2020 a staggering 89% were of “IC3” category individuals i.e black people – across a variety of London boroughs, none of which, according to Census data, had a Black population exceeding 45% of the total population.

In regards to the key issue of the officers blatant disregard for the fact they were on private land, the following ‘explanation’ was offered, which would probably make most political spin-doctors blush- 

It is possible that the officers have become distracted by a combination of factors which could include behaviour of detained persons, evasive answers to questions [in fact it was PC Burns who was evading my client’s legitimate questions!], challenging authority to conduct enquiries…and inclement weather, but what they fail to notice is that they are within the confines of a dwelling from the moment they began speaking to you until the conclusion.” 

Note the typically defensive language used, clearly designed to excuse the officers unlawful conduct as much as the complaint investigator is able to – he grants the officers the excuse of ‘innocence’ – stating that they ‘failed to notice’ the house whose drive they were standing on (and which PC Burns actually entered!), and ‘forgot’ about the driving offence which was their only stated reason for their intervention in my client’s life in the first place. This is palpable nonsense, and any reasonably independent assessor of the complaint would surely have concluded that the officers knew full well that their actions were unlawful – but rode rough-shod over the law regardless, whether out of arrogance, authoritarianism, racism, or some combination of all three of those vices. 

The fact that stop and search increased during Lockdown is a symptom of an unhealthy policing culture and all too often, Police officers ‘reasonable grounds and reasonable suspicion’ are both no more than skin deep. 

I am pleased to report that I have recently recovered significant damages for Tyrone (for false imprisonment, and assault and battery), and have also received a settlement offer for his mother (for trespass to land) although her case presently continues: but what statistics and stories like this show is that we need culture change within, not just compensation from, the Police to remedy such persistent acts of injustice and whilst Police complaint investigators routinely continue to allow Police officers who abuse or misuse stop and search powers to wiggle off the hook without a misconduct charge – that change is never going to happen.

All names have been changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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