By David Mery August 2010
The European Court of Human Rights ruling against the use of Section 44 powers led to the Home Secretary Theresa May to remind officers that 'instead [of relying on section 44], they will have to rely on section 43 powers, which require officers to reasonably suspect the person to be a terrorist.'
Both these powers were created by the Terrorism Act 2000. Assistant Commissioner Yates recognised that 'a lot of the stops under section 44 were actually under section 43, where you require reasonable suspicion, so it was a misguided, mis-briefed use of the powers.' Officers have used section 44 even when they had reasonable suspicion, probably to avoid having to justify themselves. (I was stopped and searched under section 44 even though officers stated to have found my behaviour suspicious.)
From 19 February 2001, when the Terrorism Act 2000 came into force, until June 2007, its stop and search powers were mostly used by specialist units. At the very end of June 2007, two car bombs were found in London and a burning car was driven into the Glasgow airport terminal building. For a few days, the threat level in the UK was raised to the the highest: 'critical'. This marked a jump in the use of the Terrorism Act 2000 stop and search powers.
The Metropolitan Police Service (Met) did its first section 43 stop and search in February 2005. During this same month, it was already making 1,296 section 44 stops and searches. The British Transport Police (BTP) started earlier: in June 2003 it was making two section 43 stops and searches and 46 section 44 ones. Most months the number of section 43 stops and searches was in tens, increasing to hundreds for the Met from September 2008; monthly section 44 stops and searches were in thousands or tens of thousands. Most of the counter-terrorism stops and searches, 96% of the use of section 44 in 2009, are by the Met and the BTP.
For the whole of 2009, a total of 148,798 section 44 stops and searches were conducted in Great Britain, a fall of 40% from the previous year; these led to 688 arrests (an arrest rate of 0.5%). During the same period, a total of 1,450 persons were stopped and searched by the Met under section 43, out of which 28 were arrested. As can be seen in the graphs above, the number of counter-terrorism stops and searches peaked in December 2008.
London wide authority for section 44 stop and search
A section 44 stop and search can be done only in an area where there's a prior authorisation. Until August 2009, the Met had in place a London-wide authority for section 44, reviewed every 28 days or close to.
From that time, until this week, the Met moved to a patchwork use of section 44 authorisations limited to sites across London of an iconic nature and/or key strategic importance (e.g., transport hubs), and specific tasking in response to the intelligence picture.
Detective Chief Superintendent Mike McDonagh at a conference earlier this year stated that, there was an authority for section 44 in place in about 10% of London and that in January 2010 there were about 4,000 section 44 stops and searches in transport hubs and the government security zone, and 600 done at borough level.
The Home Office has always refused to publish the list of section 44 authorisations. SpyBlog has made several attempts to get this information, and its freedom of information requests are still ongoing. Last month, Baroness Neville-Jones disclosed that errors were made in the authorisation process for the stop and search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, hence some stops and searches were unlawful.
In May, the Metropolitan Police Service quietly published a list of authorisations it requested for section 44 stops and searches from 19 February 2001 til 18 May 2009. As officers can still use section 44 in relation to searches of vehicles, it is still important to be able to verify that an authorisation is in place to ensure that a section 44 search of a car is lawful. The Counter Terrorism Command promised that 'Each police service within the UK will now confirm if they have a Section 44 authorisation in place at that current time, although forces still will not provide details of exactly where for operational reasons.'
Other ways to stop and search without ground for suspicion
The halting of the use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 does not mean the (interim) halting of all powers that allows stops and searches of individuals without reasonable suspicion.
Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 enables police officers to search any person or vehicle anywhere - within an authorised area - for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments to prevent incidents of serious violence or to deal with the carrying of such items.
An authorisation lasts up to 24 hours and can be extended for a further 24 hours. The number of section 60 stops and searches, in England and Wales, nearly trebled from 53,319 in 2007/08 to 150,174 in 2008/09 with corresponding number of arrests of 2,069 and 4,273 respectively.
Criminologist Marian Fitzgerald pointed out that the figures on a borough level show little connection between section 60 stops and searches and reduction in number of stabbings. Not only is the efficacy of this power not clear cut, but the European Court of Human Rights ruling that section 44 of the Terrorism Act is unlawful because 'the powers are drawn too broadly [... and] contain insufficient safeguards' should apply equally to section 60.
Yet another power not requiring reasonable suspicion but more limited in where it can be used is defined in Schedules 7 and 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the power to stop, question, detain (up to nine hours) and search individuals at port and border controls. There were 10,404 examinations longer than one hour in the period between 1 January 2004 and 30 September 2009. Of these 1,110 persons were detained under the powers in Schedule 7 and 8, leading to 99 arrests for terrorism-related offences, of which 17 were initially charged in relation to offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 and 31 were charged with other terrorist-related offences. Of those charges there were 43 convictions. (From the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000 up to 31 December 2009, fingerprints and DNA samples have been taken under Schedule 7 on approximately 1,200 occasions.)
Not a general power to make suspects out of everyone
When the Terrorism Act 2000 was passed, it is likely MPs intended its stop and search measures to be used to reduce the threat of terrorism and not as a general power to make suspects out of everyone.
Some police officers justified their use of section 44 powers by considering it a preventative measure, i.e. the fewer resulting arrests are to be found a proof of its effectiveness as deterring potential terrorists to walk around equipped with items that could help in the preparation of an act of terrorism.
Massive use of these powers and zero arrest being the ultimate perfection, according to this perverse logic. I witnessed such logic, with incredulity, in interventions by police officers attending a stop and search conference at Kings College. This is yet another reason why the Home Secretary and parliament must give a very clear message to all police officers of what is acceptable in a democracy... before being forced by the European Court of Human Rights.
About the author
David Mery is an independent writer and technologist. He recently researched, campaigned and wrote on civil liberties and human rights issues such as stop and search, the National DNA Database and the use of secret evidence.
One evening in 2005, he was stopped and searched and then unlawfully arrested. After a four years fight for his rights, he eventually succeeded in having his police records deleted and receiving an apology from the Metropolitan Police Service.
For David Mery's articles and his story check his website, ‘Calm, almost too calm'.