Police Powers

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What powers do the police have?

For most people, ending up in a police station having been arrested is an extraordinary event in their lives (unless they’re habitual criminals of course!). Criminals usually know the ropes and make it their business to know their rights. For others, though, it’s intimidating and nerve wracking, so here’s some guidance to help you understand the process.

The power to stop and search:

The power to stop and search is controversial because of the perceived discrimination against some racial groups.

‘Stop’ and ‘search’ are two distinct acts.

The power to stop you

  1. If you’re on foot

The police can stop and question you at any time, depending on the situation. If done by a police community support officer (PCSO) they must be in uniform to do it. A police officer doesn’t have to be, but if they’re not wearing uniform they must show you their warrant card.

A police officer might stop you and ask:

  • What your name is;
  • What you’re doing in the area;
  • Where you’ve come from;
  • Where you’re going;
  • What you’re carrying.

But you don’t have to stop or answer any questions if there are no reasonable grounds to suspect you. Most people don’t realise that. If you don’t stop and there’s no other reason to suspect you, the officer does not in fact have a reason to search or then arrest you.

  1. If you’re in a vehicle

The law is different if you are in a vehicle. A police officer can stop any vehicle at any time and ask to see driving documents, check the condition of the vehicle or deal with driving offences. This is not a stop and search and you may be given documentation relevant to road traffic matters. If the process ends there, this is considered a ‘vehicle stop’.

The power to search you

A police officer (in this instance not a PCSO – they don’t have the power to arrest) has powers to stop and search you, a vehicle you’re in and it’s occupants and anything you’re carrying if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you’re carrying:

  • Illegal drugs;
  • A weapon;
  • Stolen property;
  • Something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a knife, or a crowbar or other tools of the trade of burglars.

You can also be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer. This can happen if it is suspected that:

  • Serious violence could take place;
  • You’re carrying a weapon or have used one;
  • You’re in a specific location or area.

If you’re going to be searched what should happen?

Firstly being searched doesn’t mean you’re being arrested. That depends on the outcome of the search.

Before you’re searched the police officer must tell you:

  • Their 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;
  • That you can have a record of the search and if this isn’t possible at the time, how you can get a copy.

Removing clothing:

A police officer can ask you to take off your coat, jacket or gloves.

The police might ask you to take off other clothes and anything you’re wearing for religious reasons – for example a veil or turban. If they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view. If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you.

The power of arrest

To arrest you the police need reasonable grounds to suspect you’re involved in a crime for which your arrest is necessary. The police can arrest you anywhere and at any time, including on the street, at home or at work.

The arrest procedure

If you’re arrested the police must:

  • Identify themselves as the police;
  • Tell you that you’re being arrested;
  • Tell you what crime they think you’ve committed;
  • Explain why it’s necessary to arrest you;
  • Explain to you that you’re not free to leave.

If you’re under 18 the police should only arrest you at school if it’s unavoidable, and they must inform your headteacher. They must also contact your parents, guardian or carer as soon as possible after your arrival at the police station.

Police powers to use reasonable force

If you try to escape or become violent, the police can use ‘reasonable force’, for example holding you down so you cannot run off. You can be handcuffed and searched.

What happens after an arrest?

You’ll be taken to a police station, held in custody in a cell and then questioned.

What are your rights in custody?

Once you arrive at the police station with the arresting officer, you’ll be taken straight to the custody area where the custody officer (the person in charge of the custody area, not the arresting officer) at the police station must explain your rights.

You have the right to:

  • Get free legal advice;
  • Tell someone where you are;
  • Have medical help if you’re feeling ill;
  • See the rules the police must follow (‘Codes of Practice’);
  • See a written notice telling you about your rights, for example regular breaks for food and to use the toilet (you can ask for a notice in your language) or an interpreter to explain the notice.

You’ll be searched and your possessions will be kept by the police custody officer while you’re in the cell. You won’t be allowed to wear footwear or a belt.

If you’re under 18 or a vulnerable adult the police must try to contact your parent, guardian or carer. They must also find an ‘appropriate adult’ to come to the station to help you and be present during questioning and searching.

An appropriate adult can be:

  • Your parent, guardian or carer;
  • A social worker;
  • Another family member or friend aged 18 or over;
  • A volunteer aged 18 or over.

 Getting legal advice at the police station

You have the right to free legal advice (legal aid) if you’re questioned at a police station. You can change your mind later if you turn it down to start with but it’s not sensible to go without advice even if you’re innocent and you haven’t done what’s being suggested. The best advice is ALWAYS get a lawyer to help you. After all you don’t know all the rules or the best way to tackle the problem.

How can I get free legal advice?

You must be told about your right to free legal advice after you’ve been arrested and before you’re questioned at a police station. Ask for it.

Your choices are:

  • Ask for the police station’s ‘duty solicitor’ – they’re available 24 hours a day and are independent of the police;
  • Tell the police you would like legal advice – the police will contact the Defence Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC);
  • Ask the police to contact a solicitor of your choosing.


You may be offered legal advice over the phone instead of a duty solicitor if you’re suspected of having committed a less serious offence, such as being disorderly. The advice is free and independent of the police.

What if I agree to be questioned without legal advice?

– Not a good move!

Once you’ve asked for legal advice, the police can’t question you until you’ve got it – with some exceptions. You may feel that you’re being pressured when you’re told someone can’t help for an hour or two or more. Don’t relent. It’s really not in your interests to go it alone. You may save time but at great cost to you.

The police can make you wait for legal advice in serious cases but only if a senior officer agrees. Usually in such cases they want a lawyer present to be sure what they do isn’t misrepresented. The longest you can be made to wait before getting legal advice is 36 hours after arriving at the police station (or 48 hours for suspected terrorism).

What are my rights when being questioned?

The police will question you about the crime you’re suspected of. The interview will be recorded.

You don’t have to answer the questions but there could be consequences if you don’t. The police must explain this to you by reading you the police caution which is:

“You do not have to say anything but, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

How long can I be held in custody?

Initially you can be held in custody for up to 24 hours before the police either have to charge you with a crime or release you. However, this can be extended by a senior police officer by a further 12 hours. If the police need further time for questioning, they must apply to the magistrates, for up to a total of 96 hours. This will usually only happen in the most serious or complex of investigations. You can be held without charge for up to 14 days if you’re arrested under the Terrorism Act.

When can I be released?

The police can release you on police bail at any time if there’s not enough evidence to charge you, but you’ll have to return to the station for further questioning when asked, unless you’re notified this won’t be required.

Bail can be conditional if the police charge you and think that you may:

  • Commit another offence;
  • Fail to turn up at court;
  • Intimidate witnesses;
  • Obstruct the course of justice.

Conditional bail means your freedom will be restricted in some way.  For example, a curfew can be imposed if the offence was committed at night.

What about when they ask me for fingerprints, photographs or samples?

The police don’t need your permission and have the right to take photographs of you. They can also take fingerprints and a DNA sample (from a mouth swab or head hair root) as well as take a swab of your hands and arms.

The police need your permission and the authority of a senior police officer to take samples like blood or urine, or to take dental impressions, although an exemption is when they take a blood or urine sample in connection with drink or drug driving.

Information from fingerprints and samples is stored in a police database.

What about search warrants?

Search warrants are obtained by the police to search a place or a vehicle for evidence of a crime. The police search warrant also allows the police to confiscate evidence if found.

A police search warrant is granted by a Magistrates’ Court if supported by evidence from the police that the search warrant is necessary. To authorise a police search warrant, the police must convince the Magistrates’ Court that:

  • Consent to enter the premises or vehicle will not be forthcoming from the occupier;
  • The material which is the subject of the search is likely to be of substantial value to the investigation of a criminal offence;
  • The evidence sought is likely to be ‘relevant’ and admissible at trial;
  • The evidence sought by the police under the search warrant does not consist of legally privileged or other material likely to be excluded at trial.

How is a search warrant carried out?

Once the police search warrant has been issued, the police have the power to search and force entry to premises or vehicles even if:

  • They have been refused entry by the occupier;
  • They cannot communicate with the occupier in advance of the search;
  • The occupier is not at the premises or vehicle;
  • The premises or vehicle are not occupied; or
  • They have ‘reasonable grounds’ for thinking that if they do not enter the premises or vehicle it will hinder the search or place someone in danger.

Complaining about your treatment by the police?

If you’re unhappy about how the police have treated you, contact the police force you want to complain about.

Police forces must refer certain types of complaints to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

Complaining About the Police