“Stop and search” powers are illegal, rules European Court of Human Rights

It’s a victory for freedom! The European Court of human Rights ruled today that the British police’s powers to stop and search people whenever they feel like it are illegal.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives police the power to stop and search people in “designated areas” without needing any grounds for suspicion. Police officers have been using these powers routinely to harrass photographers all over Britain, often citing the possibility that the photographer might be a terrorist on a reconnaisance mission. You might think that’s quite reasonable – until you realise that officers have repeatedly stopped and searched professional photographers covering demonstrations and tourists caught taking pictures of tourist attractions like Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. And countless amateur photographers have been detained and harrassed thanks to the far-reaching powers.

So, now these powers have been ruled unlawful, I suppose the government will immediately order the police to stop using them, and will redraft the Terrorism Act as a matter of urgency. Right? Well, actually no. The government intends to appeal against the ruling. And you can be damn sure that in the meantime the police will continue to use and abuse their illegal powers. This despite the fact that the Court said the stop and search powers amounted to a violation of article eight of the European Convention on human Rights – the right to respect for private and family life. The Court recognised that the power to search a person’s clothing and belongings in public included an element of humiliation and embarrassment which was a clear interference with the right to privacy. And they expressed concern over the arbitrary nature of the powers, under which a police officer needs to offer no justification for his decision to detain and search anyone he feels like harassing. So the UK government is basically saying: “We don’t care that our agents are detaining and humiliating innocent people as a matter of routine. We will continue to encourage our agents to abuse members of the public for as long as we can get away with it.”

I think that the judges were especially concerned that the powers are being used against demonstrators who are clearly not terrorists, and to block the work of journalists trying to cover demonstrations. The case was brought by Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton, who were stopped by police while their way to a demonstration outside the annual arms fair at the Excel centre, in London’s Docklands, in September 2003. Gillan was stopped and detained for 20 minutes without good cause; Quinton, a journalist, was ordered to stop filming the protest even though she had shown her press card to officers. How can these police actions be justified? Remember, the police were using powers granted to them by the Terrorism Act, but there was no suggestion that Gillan or Quinton were in any way involved in terrorism. This is a clear example of the police abusing their powers. And there is also clear evidence that the police are going to continue abusing their powers, under government orders, for as long as they can get away with it.

The police are breaking the law. The police are the criminals. Let’s fight crime!

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One Response to “Stop and search” powers are illegal, rules European Court of Human Rights

  1. Was it such a common procedure?

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