The Northamptonshire police force has taken proactive steps to stop its officers from abusing their powers and searching people without reasonable cause.
In the UK, as in Australia, police frequently conduct searches without a proper basis. These searches are illegal.
The most common targets are ethnic minorities.
But the Guardian reports that officers of the Northamptonshire police force who abuse their power to stop and search people on the street without reasonable cause will no longer be authorised to carry out searches.
Eight officers have been banned since the policy was introduced in October 2014, comprised of three special constables, two regular constables and three sergeants.
The policy works on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ basis; with officers who conduct baseless searches on three occasions losing their authority to carry out further ones.
In the UK, as in Australia, police are not permitted carry out ‘random’ searches. In order to stop and search someone in the UK, police must have “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the person is carrying:
- A weapon,
- Illegal drugs,
- Stolen property, or
- Property that has been used, or could be used, to commit an offence.
In the UK, any other search must be approved by a senior police officer, and can only be approved if certain criteria are met; for example, if police believe that serious violence could take place, or you are in a specific location or area.
Northamptonshire police officers who breach the policy are also expected to apologise face to face to those whose rights they violated. Police Commissioner Simmonds states that:
“If someone was stopped for no reason or inappropriately then that person is a victim. I want the restorative justice approach for cops. I want a cop to say sorry… Stop and search is an important part of policing. It helps catch criminals and offers protection to the public. But it must be used responsibly if the public are to continue to have trust in the police.”
This provides a refreshing change from police forces – like those in Australia – that systematically ignore the misconduct of officers while campaigning for ever-increasing powers.
Police ‘Stop and Search’ Powers in NSW
Police powers in NSW do not allow officers to simply stop and search you whenever they feel like it. They need to have a warrant, or alternatively a “reasonable suspicion”, before they can legally search you.
Section 21 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act (NSW) states that a police officer must “suspect on reasonable grounds” that:
- You have stolen or unlawfully obtained property in your possession or control;
- You have anything in your possession or under you control that has been used/ is intended to be used to commit an offence;
- You are in a public place and have a dangerous article in your possession used in committing an offence; or
- You have a prohibited plant or drug in your possession or under your control.
What is a “Suspicion on Reasonable Grounds”?
A “suspicion on reasonable grounds”, or “reasonable suspicion”, was defined in the case of R v Rondo as being “less than a reasonable belief but more than a possibility.”
This means that police cannot make an arbitrary decision to search you – there must be a factual basis for their alleged suspicion that one or more of the above criteria is met.
Simply looking nervous, for example, is not enough to constitute a reasonable suspicion; even if you are in a known drug area, such as a music festival or night club. There is also a very strong argument that a positive indication by a sniffer dog is not, by itself, enough for police to form a “reasonable suspicion”.
Being previously convicted of an offence, or being in the company of a person who has, are also not enough for police to stop and search you.
If you are searched illegally and police find drugs, there is a good chance that your lawyer will be able to have the case against you dropped or thrown out of court; and police may even be ordered to pay your legal costs. The chances of this happening are the highest where the amount of drugs found upon you are small.
If you think you may have been searched illegally, you should contact an experienced criminal lawyer immediately to discuss the best way forward.