Activist Rights

Being searched

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Generally, the police can only search you if you agree or if they have a warrant.

The police can search you, your possessions and your car without consent or a warrant if you are in a public place and they believe you are carrying illegal drugs, volatile substances, weapons, graffiti implements, or firearms. Note that “weapons” can include any object which has been either modified to enable it to be used as a weapon or any object carried with the intent of being used as a weapon. If you are within a “designated area” the police do not need to have a reasonable suspicion that you are actually in possession of or intend to use a weapon in order to search you. If you are not within a designated area, however, there must exist a reasonable suspicion or evidence on which their decision to search you has been based. The police can include in their reasons to search you that you are in an area with a high rate of violent crime. Police can’t legally stop and search you on a whim or because they don’t like you – although this often occurs.

Police may conduct a ”pat-down search” of the outside of your clothes and ask you to empty your pockets.

If the police reasonably suspect you are carrying a weapon and you refuse to produce it, you could be charged and fined.

If you are in custody or under arrest you can be searched for things that could be used as evidence for the offence you have been arrested for. Police may conduct either a ”pat-down search” or a ”strip search” in a private place.

Police must not undertake an internal search without first obtaining a court order.

Searches are required to be conducted, so far as reasonably practicable, by police officers of the same sex as the person to be searched. In other words, women, including people who identify as women must be searched by female police officers. This does not always occur – the unfortunate reality is that male police often strip search female suspects as a form of harassment and intimidation.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR Article 17) protects against arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy. Many searches are arguably random (and therefore arbitrary), aimed at the general population rather than specific individuals suspected of criminal offences.

Where possible, refuse to be searched, but if police insist then closely monitor them. Try to have as many witnesses as possible to follow and observe each police officer (there will usually be several). Use cameras and tape recorders, if you have them.

Check every item police attempt to take away, and ensure your witnesses see that police don’t plant or falsely “find” anything. Insist on a detailed receipt for anything that is taken – this can be cross-referenced with the report to the magistrate. Do not countersign this receipt if it is not accurate or not fully detailed.

If property is taken from you during an arrest or at a demonstration, have a lawyer write a letter to police immediately, demanding return of the property. Raise the matter before a magistrate, if you are charged. Put on record as soon as possible what was taken, where it was taken and by whom. This helps any legal follow-up that may be necessary..

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