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New Stop and Search Powers

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Terrorism Act 2000: New Stop and Search Powers

Recently, I was walking through Leeds Train Station, when I was stopped by a Community Support Officer. She informed me that I had been randomly selected to be searched as part of the continuing security operation on the railway network, in order to prevent terrorism. The Community Support Officer was highly professional, but I have to say that it was not an enjoyable experience. It was most embarrassing being frisked and having my bags searched, whilst trying to ignore all the surreptitious glances from passing commuters, all clearly convinced that the police must believe me to have committed a crime. Prior to the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000 ("the Act"), the passing commuters would have been right. Until the passing of the Act, the police had to have ‘reasonable grounds' for stopping and searching a person, but this all changed with the introduction of the Terrorism Act in 2000.

The main powers to stop and search pedestrians are contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Section 1 of PACE, for example, empowers a police officer to detain a person and search him for stolen or prohibited articles provided that he has ‘reasonable grounds' for suspecting that he will find such items. Although these powers have proved sufficient to deal with other types of criminality, they have not been deemed to be sufficient to enable police to deal effectively with terrorism.

The introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000 brought with it specific powers enabling the police, and others, to stop, question and search pedestrians for articles to use in carrying out acts of terrorism and to prevent terrorist attacks. Sections 44(1) and 44(2) removed the necessity for ‘reasonable grounds.' Under this section the officer does not have to have ‘reasonable grounds' to suspect the individual of carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons or of involvement in anticipated violence or terrorism. The result being that under the umbrella of the prevention of terrorism, the police, or authorised Community Support Officers, can stop and search anyone they choose.

This has lead to a feeling that terrorism is perhaps being used as an excuse to increase police powers unnecessarily. This is supported by official statistics, which show an increase in the numbers of stop and searches carried out since the introduction of "the Act". Privacy International claims that the number of ‘stop and searches' of pedestrians under section 44(2) increased four-fold from 946 in 2001/02 to 4,774 in 2002/03. Civil liberties groups have expressed disapproval of this increase. There have also been questions over the usefulness of the new powers, since in 2002/03 only 7 arrests in connection with terrorism resulted from section 44(2). (www.assatashakur.org/forum/london-uk/36398-stop-search-laws-uk-know-your-rights.html). This is worrying trend and as Civil liberties group, Liberty commented we must ensure that "the power to stop and search under anti-terrorism powers is only used when there is evidence of a specific terrorist threat. It should not be simply an addition to the day to day powers of officers." (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/issues/6-free-speech/s44-terrorism-act/index.shtml).

It must be mentioned that there are controls in place to limit the number of searches. To be valid a search must stipulate the specific geographical area in which it is to take place, for example a bus or train station and each search area can only be authorised for up to 28 days at a time. Furthermore, applications for such a search area must be authorised by the Home Secretary. The searches themselves also have formal requirements, for example the police can only give you a "pat down," ask you to remove outer clothes (e.g. jacket, hat), search your bags and have you empty your pockets. You do not have to give your name or address and you do not have to explain why you are there.

It is clear that it is a very difficult balancing act between the protection of civil liberties and the prevention of terrorism. The Government clearly believes that, given the continuing threat to security in the United Kingdom, the powers outlined above are necessary. But perhaps there is scope for some rationalisation of the provisions and for minimising the departures they contain from PACE or its equivalents.

Laura Bowler

Trainee Solicitor

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