Knowing your rights when dealing with the police
Know your rights: UK police
What powers do the police actually have, do you have to answer police questions and can police stop you for no reason? Navigating interactions with the police can be daunting, but it’s crucial to know your rights when stopped by the police to make sure you are treated fairly and that you can protect yourself. Whether you’re facing a stop, search, or arrest, knowing what the police can and can’t do is empowering.
We spoke to the law firm Mishcon de Reya to bring you all the information you need. Here’s an expert guide to help you better understand your rights.
What powers do the police have to stop you?
According to the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), section 1, the police in the UK have the power to stop and search you if they have reasonable grounds* to suspect that you have stolen or banned items, such as illegal drugs, weapons, stolen property, or items that could be used to commit a crime.
This power allows the police to stop people temporarily to carry out a search. There are also other powers the police can use:
- The power to stop and search you without the need for reasonable suspicion, in situations where there is a likelihood of serious violence, or where there have been incidents involving weapons in the local area.
- The power to stop and search you in order to prevent acts of terrorism. This power can be authorised by a senior police officer.
It’s important to note that the law still requires that the police have reasonable grounds or specific circumstances to use these powers and they are required to be used lawfully and fairly.
*Reasonable grounds means that the officer has to have a genuine suspicion that they’ll find the item they’re looking for. This should be based on how likely it is that you have the item, not about how likely they think it is that you would break the law. Another way of thinking about it is, an ordinary bystander would also need to think it was fair if they had the same information the police officer has. Read more about your stop and search rights in the UK.
Police welfare checks
A police welfare check can happen when the police believe there is an immediate danger to your welfare or wellbeing. The police can then visit your home to check if you’re ok, although you do have the right to ignore them. Learn more about police welfare checks.
How to check if someone is a police officer
To check if someone is a police officer, you can ask them to identify themselves and show their warrant card. You can usually tell that someone is a police officer if they are in police uniform and driving a marked police car.
Genuine police officers should also conduct themselves in a professional and respectful way. They should follow established rules and show knowledge of police procedures. If their behaviour seems unprofessional or suspicious, you can contact the local police station to check their identity.
If you feel threatened or uncertain, it is better to err on the side of caution and seek support from someone you trust to confirm the legitimacy of the person claiming to be a police officer.
What are your rights when stopped by the police?
It’s important to understand your rights when stopped by the police. If a police officer stops and searches you under section 1 of PACE, which includes public streets, you have the right to request a copy of the search record. This record provides information about the search and serves as a record of the interaction.
You also have a right to ask for the officer’s name and police station, what they expect to find, for example drugs, the reason they want to search you, for example if it looks like you’re hiding something, why they are legally allowed to search you and how you can get the copy of the search record.
Do you have to answer police questions?
You don’t legally have to answer the police’s questions. However, cooperating and answering them could potentially mean there’s no need for a search. Ultimately, the choice to answer questions rests with you.
What are your rights during a police search?
Different types of searches have specific guidelines about where they can take place. While you can’t prevent a search if it’s required, it must be carried out legally. For example, a strip search should never take place in public view.
If you feel that a search isn’t being conducted properly, you can make a complaint.
What are your rights if you’re arrested?
Being arrested can feel really scary, but you still have rights and can seek support when this happens. Here’s what you need to know to feel as safe as possible.
The Custody Sergeant at the police station will explain your rights to you. These rights include:
- The right to free and independent legal advice
- The right to have someone informed of your detention
- The right to read the codes of practice book (PACE) that outlines your rights comprehensively
If you’ve been arrested and need some advice and support, there are a few different options:
- Duty solicitor: At the police station, you have the right to free legal advice from the duty solicitor.
- Legal aid: If you meet the means tested criteria, you can apply for legal aid, which provides financial support for legal representation.
- Private solicitor: You have the option to hire a private solicitor at your own expense to provide specialist advice.
- Law centres: Law centres are non-profit organisations that provide free or low-cost legal services to people who can’t afford private representation.
- Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB): The CAB offers free advice on various legal matters, including criminal law.
Do you have a right to have anyone with you when talking to the police?
How can you support as a bystander if you suspect an unlawful stop?
As a bystander, you aren’t supposed to interfere or prevent a search from taking place. However, you can offer support by helping someone who is involved in the search.
Staying nearby to keep them calm and offering reassurance can be helpful, and you can also inform them of their rights if they are unsure.
If you think a search is being carried out unlawfully, you can make a complaint on the person’s behalf.
How can you make a complaint about the police?
You have a right to make a complaint about the police if you think you have been mistreated, unlawfully arrested or you believe your rights have been abused. You have a few options for how to do this:
- You can fill out a complaints form on your local police force website; this is the simplest way to make a complaint. Links to the local websites can be found on this page.
- You can head to your local police station, or give them a ring and ask to speak to the duty police officer.
- You can also get in touch with a solicitor or MP who can make the complaint on your behalf.
- An option for serious complaints is to contact the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).
- If you want legal advice, you can get it for free at your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Being informed about your rights is really important to make sure you are being treated fairly and lawfully when interacting with the police, so share this article with whoever you think might find it helpful, and bookmark it so you have it handy whenever you might need it.
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Updated on 07-Jun-2023
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