In a highly publicised trial in 2021, Wayne Couzens, a former Metropolitan police officer, sent shock waves through the UK. The trial exposed the disturbing details of how Couzens misused his position as a Met Police Officer, deploying his warrant card and handcuffs to secure an improper arrest of Sarah Everard to lure her to his vehicle. The actions of this man have raised concerns about how individuals stopped by the police, when alone, can be sure that the stop is a genuine one and that the officer is acting in the course of his duty. In this blog post Garrick Law discusses police interaction safety and rights.
When Can A Police Officer Stop You In A Public Place?
In a public place, you may feel compelled to interact with police officers if they approach you, but legally, you are not obligated to respond. The police have the power to ask questions about your identity, activities, and destination in public spaces, but this does not grant them the authority to force you to answer.
Refusing to respond or remaining silent does not give them grounds to search or arrest you. If they seek to restrict your freedom through arrest or conduct a search, they must provide reasons and inform you of your rights. If they fail to clarify their actions or act inappropriately, you have the right to voice your concerns and refuse cooperation. In such cases, they may be acting unlawfully, and you can assert your rights. For more detailed information about your rights during stops and searches, you can refer to the government website.
In response to the tragic events emanating from the Wayne Couzens case, the Metropolitan Police, have issued guidelines regarding safety and to assist individuals in determining the legitimacy of an approach by police officers in uncertain circumstances or situations. The guidelines seek to go beyond basic identification requirements and provide advice on how to ensure individual safety.
The statement stresses that it is rare for a single plainclothes police officer to approach individuals in London. In cases where an officer intends to make an arrest, other officers are expected to arrive shortly. However, if no additional officers appear, and a person finds themselves interacting with a lone officer, it is reasonable to seek further reassurance about the officer’s identity and intentions.
To ascertain the authenticity of the officer, the Metropolitan Police recommends asking four questions:
An additional question that could be asked is confirming whether they are on duty. If so, ask them to explain why they are not in police uniform.
The Met guidelines suggest attempting to verify the officer’s claims independently, such as requesting to hear the voice of the radio operator, if available. The Met assert that they recognise that the public may be understandably concerned and distrustful in such situations, the guidelines therefore emphasise that individuals have the right to ask additional questions for their safety. If, despite all efforts, an individual still feels unsure or genuinely endangered and doubts the officer’s authenticity, they are advised to seek immediate assistance.
The suggestions given in the guidelines are alerting passers-by, seeking refuge in a nearby house, knocking on a door for help, signalling a passing bus, or calling 999 if possible.
Another option available is to ask the officer to wait, whilst you call 101 to verify the identity of a police officer and confirm whether they are in fact on duty at the material time of the stop.
Narita Bahra KC, a ranked Defence Barrister has acted in many cases involving police misconduct and/or cases where the police have breached professional duties, in both Criminal Cases and Regulatory proceedings. Narita reminds clients that;
Warrant cards may differ slightly across law enforcement agencies, but they generally encompass essential information such as the officer’s photograph, full name, unique identity number, and the name of the enforcing authority and often feature a security hologram for added authenticity.
Here is a Metropolitan Police example of a genuine warrant card.
What Should I Do If Am Concerned About An Arrest I Am Witnessing?
It is an offence to interfere with an officer in the execution of their duties, such as during an arrest. However, there are steps you can take to ensure the safety and proper treatment of the individual being arrested.
Instead of physically or verbally involving yourself in the arrest, which may lead to legal consequences, it is recommended to maintain a safe distance and use your role as a bystander to assist.
If you have information that could clear the person under arrest, it is important to make the police aware of the facts and provide your contact details for a statement.
However, be conscious that they may not be able to speak to you immediately at the scene. If that is the case, always make a note of what you witnessed. The easiest way is on your telephone by way of a written or voice note. This will help to draft a later statement.
In the event you witness an arrest where you believe excessive force is being used or the police are acting inappropriately towards the detainee or the public, you should directly contact the police. You may consider recording the incident as evidence (audio/visual). If you believe the person’s safety is at serious risk, call 999 (emergency services) and inform the officers at the scene about your actions and
reasons for doing so.
The police do not possess the general power to enter your home unless you permit them, but there are specific circumstances under which they are legally allowed to do so.
Police can enter a private property to arrest an individual if they have reasonable belief a crime has been committed. The address does not have to be the individual’s primary residence. However, when entering a property to arrest the police must inform the occupant/s of the reason for their entry.
The police can enter a property if they have a warrant to search the premises. In this case, they have a lawful right to enter, and refusing their entry could lead to you committing an offence. They can also use force to gain entry if necessary.
However, it is essential to remember that even with a warrant, you have the right to verify the legitimacy of the situation. To do this, you can request a copy of the warrant and examine its details, such as the addressee, ensuring it pertains to your residence. It is also reasonable to enquire about the purpose of the search and ask for a copy of the search log at the end of the search, which should list any items the police remove from your home.
Do note that if you are present on a premises/ property during the police search, the officers should note down any explanations or answers given by you to items seized during the search. This should be recorded on the copy of the search record provided to you before the police leave the scene. It is sensible to verify the comments recorded on the search log before the police leave.
If you are told to stop by a Police Officer your actions will vary depending upon the type of vehicle conducting the stop.
If you are signalled to stop by a fully marked police vehicle, it is crucial to stop as soon as it is safe to do so. The presence of clear police insignia on the vehicle indicates a legitimate stop.
For unmarked police cars, the situation requires more caution. Unmarked police vehicles are legally permitted to conduct a stop. However, it is essential to ensure that the occupant of the vehicle is a police officer before complying with any of their further requests. Wearing a uniform and asking to check their warrant card is a starting point. If you are in doubt ask to call 101.
If you have doubts about the legitimacy of the stop, consider driving to a public area like a petrol station or local shops, where you are visible to others before you halt your vehicle. Please note that failing to stop when requested by an officer is a criminal offence. Therefore, if you decide to drive to a more public area, acknowledge their request by indicating with your lights, and drive steadily to a safe place.
Once you have pulled over, keep your doors locked and only open them when you are confident that an officer is approaching your vehicle. This precaution ensures your safety and allows you to verify the authenticity of the officer.
If possible, safe and stationary, call emergency services (999) or 101 to inform them of your location and provide information about the vehicle behind you and your concerns. They can verify if it is a genuine police officer. You can then exit your vehicle. There is no reason you cannot relay to the purported officer the fact that you will exit the vehicle once their identity has been verified over the telephone.
In all situations, remain calm, respectful, and cooperative when interacting with law enforcement. Comply with their requests for identification, driving licence details, registration, and proof of insurance. If you have concerns about the manner of your encounter, you can address them later through appropriate channels.