Police Misuse of Stop & Search Powers: A Vicious Circle

I have on numerous occasions highlighted the disregard which many Metropolitan Police officers show towards the rules governing speculative ‘stop and search’ operations upon members of the public; rules set out under the Police & Criminal Evidence Act so as to respect the liberty and individuality of the citizen and to ensure that officers do not abuse such powers – as if they were agents of some dystopian police state – and instead operate in a democratic environment of transparency and accountability. Such is the law as provided under Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the modern bedrock of that age-old principle of the British constitution: policing by consent.

Unfortunately, as the case of my client Mohammed demonstrates, the abuse of stop and search powers, and lack of regard for the fundamental steps which any officer is required to comply with to make such an ‘on the street’ detention and search lawful, is also commonplace amongst the other police Forces of England and Wales, as is evidence of ‘racial profiling’ by their officers.

At approximately 1:55 am on 10 March 2021 Mohammed, an 18-year-old university student, was in his car on Bedford Street, Rhyl with a friend, having recently finished work. A North Wales Police car containing PC Richards and PC Yang pulled up nearby. Thinking nothing of it, Mohammed and his friend got out of the car to walk home; the officers then approached the two lads and asked to speak to them.

Unexpectedly, Mohammed’s friend ran away from the officers. Mohammed was surprised by his friend’s action but chose not to act similarly; he simply refused to engage with the officers and began to walk away. He was followed by PC Richards, whom he asked not to touch him. Mohammed knew that the law of England and Wales does not require a citizen to simply ‘account’ for themselves to an officer on demand, nor to answer the officer’s questions, if they are not being lawfully detained for either the purposes of a justified search, or on suspicion of an offence.

PC Yang then suddenly rushed forwards and took hold of Mohammed’s arms shouting, “Give me your fucking hands!” before putting his arm around the back of Mohammed’s neck and pulling his head forwards. As this occurred, PC Yang’s elbow connected with Mohammed’s face. PC Yang then grabbed Mohammed’s coat and partly pulled it over his head.

Mohammed was understandably distressed by this abrupt and unnecessary use of force. He repeatedly shouted for the officers to get off him and asked what he had done, however PC Richards only told him that he was “Being searched”. My client remonstrated with PC Yang for hitting him in the face and for not wearing a mask (given the high prevalence of Covid cases at the time). With the assistance of PC Richards, PC Yang handcuffed Mohammed to the rear and then searched him; nothing illicit was found. As the search was occurring, other Police officers arrived, and PC Yang threatened to use further force and take Mohammed to the ground.

PC Yang then decided to subject Mohammed to a drug swab and a breathalyser test and attempted to force him into the rear of the police car. Mohammed refused to enter the car but said that he was willing to take the tests outside. PC Yang then arrested Mohammed for “resisting” and forced him into the rear of the car. My client again questioned why he had been stopped and assaulted and it was only at this point that PC Yang announced that he had detained and searched Mohammed under Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The breathalyser test was negative and whilst awaiting the results of the drug swab, Mohammed’s father attended the scene. The drugs swab was also negative, although PC Yang commented that “Surprisingly you’ve passed that test … because from the look from your eyes you look stoned”. This accusation was entirely false – Mohammed had not taken any drugs, as borne out by the battery of tests he had been subjected to by the Police.  PC Yang then de-arrested my client but informed him that he would be reported for obstructing a police officer and cautioned him.

The following day Mohammed was suffering from pain in his jaw and attended hospital, where he was given painkillers.

Mohammed was subsequently prosecuted for allegedly obstructing PC Yang in the execution of his duty; however, on 5 May the CPS discontinued the prosecution, evidently realising that an officer who is carrying out a blatantly unlawful search is not “acting in the execution of his duty”. It is disgraceful that matters even got that far however, and that Mohammed was subjected to the stress and worry of having this false charge hanging over his head for several months.

Failure to comply with Code A renders Stop & Search Unlawful

My client subsequently lodged a complaint. The complaint was upheld on the basis that Mohammed was searched unlawfully as PC Yang failed to provide the grounds for the search, the object of the search, the legislation relied upon, his identity or his station until after the search had been conducted; i.e. the officer had failed to comply with the “GOWISELY” criteria, and was therefore in breach of Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, rendering his detention and manhandling of Mohammed unlawful. Furthermore, Mohammed’s complaint of incivility against PC Yang was upheld due to PC Yang’s comments regarding the negative drug swab.

This incident and the subsequent prosecution caused Mohammed significant distress and upset, including sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression; he was at the time of these events a first-year university student and following the incident found it difficult to concentrate, negatively impacting his studies. Mohammed remains extremely concerned that he could again be assaulted and arrested by police officers without any reason, especially when in his car. This led him to avoid using his car and experiencing significant fear and anxiety when interacting with police officers.

I subsequently brought a claim against North Wales Police on behalf of Mohammed for false imprisonment, assault and battery and malicious prosecution, which was settled out of Court for the sum of £7,500 damages plus legal costs; this will provide Mohammed with an entirely appropriate sense of vindication, help him to move on with his life and – possibly – encourage the Police to adapt their future approach to such encounters/ events.

A Circle of Mistrust, Fuelled by Police Prejudice

Although the Police upheld Mohammed’s complaint because of PC Yang’s failure to provide the requisite information in accordance with PACE, I think that the circumstances of this incident do demonstrate a wider malaise amongst officers than merely a failure to ‘say the right words’ in the heat of the moment; of great concern, in my view, is the lack of an objectively reasonable basis for the stop/ search in the first place – the circumstances instead being indicative of officers (possibly bored, with too much time on their hands during the second national ‘Lockdown’) carrying out a speculative stop and search encounter upon an individual because of his personal characteristics and the time of night, rather than any behavioural indicators on his part or other evidence of criminality. Certainly, the Police failed to produce any evidence from either PC Yang or any of his colleagues justifying an objectively reasonable suspicion that Mohammed might have had illegal drugs upon him; and I strongly suspect that Mohammed was targeted simply because of his general characteristics i.e. being a young, British Asian, male ‘out and about’ in the early hours. As Home Office data published last year and widely reported on demonstrates, Mohammed’s cohort of the population – BAME (Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic) males aged 15-19 – were the subject of over 20% of all Police searches nationwide.

As stressed above, we do not live in a Police state where individuals otherwise behaving in an entirely law- abiding manner are required to account for themselves to the Police – nor one in which the law presumes them to be criminals because they refuse to engage; regrettably, however, many agents of that law do appear to operate on just such prejudiced presumptions. Justice is blind – but not, it seems, all of her foot soldiers – to the colour of a man’s skin.

When Police officers throughout England and Wales carry out heavy-handed and unjustified searches upon young, ethnic minority males, they are fuelling a ‘vicious circle’ of mistrust between such young men and the Police, with Police officers then interpreting that mistrust/ refusal to engage as somehow being evidence of criminality, or suspicious behaviour in and of itself – whereas sadly they are in large part its cause.

I will leave the final word in this blog to Mohammed himself, who sent me this kind testimonial at the conclusion of his case-

I contacted Iain after recommendation from my older brother who was at the time studying his masters in law… he looked into some cases you had dealt with in the past and was very impressed. He originally contacted you on my behalf until I took over communication.

Contacting you was very easy and even when I was unable to speak to you, I was very happy with your colleagues who were very helpful.

I am very happy with the service and of course the result I didn’t think I was entitled to any compensation until your help I just wanted to make sure I made a complaint to prevent this happening to someone else.

The names of the Police officers in this blog post have been changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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