Stop and search under the Terrorism Act

The Terrorism Act of 2000 dramatically increased police powers to stop and search. David Mery gives the lowdown

June 3, 2009
4 min read

You are going about your business, when suddenly you are approached by police officers. After identifying themselves, they announce, ‘We are stopping you under section 44 of the Terrorism Act.’ Your first reaction is why me? What have I done? But unlike other stop and search powers, officers don’t need any reasonable grounds for suspicion. In fact, if they do suspect you, then they should use other powers. They will ask you your name and address, what you are doing and where you are going – you don’t have to answer, but they will likely exceed their powers by looking at any identifying documents you’re carrying. They can ask you to take off outer clothing. You have to submit to the search.

According to the police’s advice on stop and search in relation to terrorism, they ‘create a hostile environment for terrorists to operate in and can help to deter, disrupt and detect terrorist activity’. These searches must take place in authorised areas, but there has been a continuous succession of authorisations for the whole of London since February 2001. It is difficult to know exactly the period and location of such authorisations as the Home Office has fought related freedom of information requests.

Section 44 can affect anyone, but some people are affected more than others. Government figures released in May show that since 2007 the number of searches under the powers has risen by 322 per cent for black people, 277 per cent for Asian people, but just 185 per cent for white people. Protesters have also suffered. Demonstrations at Fairford airbase, the DSEi arms fair in London’s docklands and the Heathrow Climate Camp provide glaring examples of abuses of section 44.

Standard operating procedures explain: ‘The choice of persons stopped should normally be based on location, time, intelligence or behaviour [including] unusual actions or presence near a vulnerable location. The level of behaviour may not amount to “reasonable grounds” and may be not much more than intuition on behalf of the officer. Any manner of profiling is undesirable where persons from a particular group are targeted by officers without existence of additional credible evidence.’

Between 2001 and 2004, 205,000 section 44 stop and searches were conducted in England and Wales. These resulted in 2,571 arrests – representing 1.25 per cent of all searches. Available data gives no indication as to how many of these arrests were in connection with terrorism, how many led to charges being brought, or how many convictions followed. Liberty claims that only six in every 10,000 people stopped are arrested, and that nobody has ever been arrested for terror offences after a stop and search.

Reporting in 2005 on the Terrorism Act 2000, Lord Carlisle, the independent reviewer of the Act, found that while ‘fairly extensive use [of section 44 powers] is understandable … they should be used sparingly [as they involve] a substantial encroachment into the reasonable expectation of the public at large that they will only face police intervention in their lives (even when protesters) if there is reasonable suspicion that they will commit a crime.’

Fears over their diminishing authority have recently led the Metropolitan Police to claim they will be reducing their use of section 44. However, the powers will remain in place around major landmarks, train stations and crowded public spaces – essentially no change.

Turning the tide on repressive anti-terror measures will be a long process, but on encountering terror searches it’s important to challenge the police over their actions. You can’t legally avoid being searched if it’s requested, but refuse to give the police your details – on protests section 44 searches often play the supplementary role of data-gathering.

You are entitled to a receipt for your search outlining the where, why, when and who of the search. Officers often attempt to evade this responsibility – don’t let them! These are key legal documents for official complaints about police conduct during the search, or complaints made by political organisations about the over-use of stop and search powers.

If the police refuse you a form, try your own data gathering. If they’re wearing them, note down the officers’ shoulder numbers. Film and photograph them, and note the time and place. If there are any witnesses, get their contact details. Make a complaint – this can force a review if enough people do it, and may at least make the officers in question think twice in future. Complaints can be taken to your local police station, Citizens Advice Bureau, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, or a solicitor.

n David Mery is a freelancer and technologist based in London. His website is

www.gizmonaut.net. For further info contact

www.activistlegalproject.org.uk


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