The upcoming G20 protests have already been targeted by a police smear campaign. And it seems likely that the G20 protests will see heavy handed police tactics like those used at Climate Camp in 2008. In this sort of situation knowing your legal rights is vital in protecting yourself from intimidation and to help forge a stronger movement.
It’s common that police know little about the law at these sorts of events, and have often been known to lie in an attempt to coerces information from protesters. Learning your rights before an event can save you becoming a victim to police intimidation. What follows is a very brief guide answering a few common questions on your legal rights as a protester.
Can the police take my name and address?
Generally the police have no powers to obtain your personal details so in most circumstances it’s not an offence to refuse to give the police your name and address. There are some exceptions though such as: when you are the driver of a vehicle (an offence under the Road Traffic Act) or if the police suspect you engaging in ‘antisocial behavior’ (behavior which has caused or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress). In these circumstances refusing to give your name and address is an offence (section 50 Police Reform Act 2002) and could lead to your arrest. Before giving your details though ask what ‘antisocial behaviour’ they suspect you have committed, as they could just be trying it on in order to get your details.
It’s not an offence to refuse to give your details if the police say you have committed a criminal offense, but it may make it more likely that you will get arrested if you don’t. If they can’t tell you what offence they think you have committed or it doesn’t sound at all plausible then they may just be trying to get your details for evidence gathering purposes, in which case don’t give them the pleasure. It has recently been reported that the police have a database on information on protesters so it may be in your interest to withhold your details where possible. More information about the database can be found in the Guardian article: how police keep tabs on activists).
Can the police stop and search me?
There are a number of different pieces of legislation that permit the police to search you:
Under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 you and your vehicle can be stopped and searched if the police have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that you’re carrying drugs, weapons, stolen items (tools etc) to carry out theft, burglary or criminal damage.
Police perform a ’stop and search’ only to find a pair of gloves and a dirty tissue
You and your vehicle can be stopped and searched if the police have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that you are a ‘terrorist’ (section 43 Terrorism Act 2000). The search is for any items that will constitute evidence that you are a terrorist e.g. laptops, paperwork, address books, or phones. Under the Act, ‘terrorism’ is very broadly defined, it includes serious damage to property as well as violence to people. Your action must also be designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and must be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.
You and your vehicle can be stopped and searched if a search has been specifically authorised by a senior police officer (section 60, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994). The search can only be for offensive weapons and dangerous instruments.
This is a blanket search power, the police don’t need any grounds to suspect you of carrying weapons or dangerous instruments. The definition of these is wide-ranging, it could include a flick knife, a broken bottle, a pair of scissors, a spanner or an umbrella. But it’s not a right to search for anything else e.g. an address book, diary, or camera film. It is an offence to refuse to be searched under this power. Sometimes when they use this search power the police surround a group of people and search them one at a time before release. It is also not unheard of for them to use this power as an excuse to examine your wallet for identification. They will claim they are looking for razor blades.
Police search a vehicle
If a search has been authorised under section 44, Terrorism Act 2000, you and your vehicle can be searched for articles that could be used in connection with terrorism. Again its a blanket search power and there is no need for the police to have any grounds for the search. It is an offense to refuse to be searched under this power.
Under all the above stop and search provisions the following apply:
There is no need to give your name and address, unless you are the driver of a vehicle being searched.
You only have to remove outer clothing for searches in public places. They can ‘pat you down’ but this must be done by a same-sex officer. They can check bags and pockets.
If they find any weapons or other items, that they are entitled to search for, these can be seized.
They must provide you with written record of the search and a list of anything they seize. If you have not provided them with any personal details it is likely they will ask you to sign the form in an attempt to find out your name.
If you are arrested
In the unlucky event that you are arrested you are only obliged to give your name and address to the police. They will also ask for your date of birth to confirm exactly who you are – you don’t have to give them this information, though it sometimes speeds things up if you do. The police can use ‘reasonable force’ to acquire your DNA and fingerprints at the police station. The best advice is to say, ‘No comment’ to anything they ask beyond your name and address. You have the right to ring a solicitor and you should not allow the police to interview you until the solicitor arrives. Advise your solicitor that you wish to make a ‘no comment’ interview if the police want to interview there and then. ‘No comment! The defendant’s guide to arrest ‘ is a very thorough resource that the Legal Defence and Monitoring group published in 2004.
Find out more
The above information has been adapted from a pamphlet created by a The Activists Legal Project titled ‘Know Your Rights: A Climate Activists Guide to the Law’. The pamphlet also covers what to do if you are arrested as well as other information on laws that may affect you on a protest.
Visit The Activists Legal Project website at www.activists legalproject.org.uk where you can download the complete pamphlet.
On the days of protest themselves in is also advisable to look out for legal observers from the Legal Defence and Monitoring group who will be handing out information on your rights as well as contact details for solicitors should you be arrested.