Section 44 Searches and my FOI requests

In August, Terence Eden was stopped and searched at Liverpool Street Waterloo station under Section 44(2) of The Terrorism Act 2000. He videoed the search, questioned the officer, blogged and discussed the incident:

I was surprised by the fact that a police officer could at any time, with no grounds for suspicion whatsoever, go through the personal belongings of a private citizen in a public place, under threat of arrest, and shared Terence Eden’s outrage at this. I was also concerned at the misuse of this power to search anyone, for anything, at any time, regardless of terrorism-specific suspicions.

I wanted to know more. Using the website WhatDoTheyKnow, I filed a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police, asking:

  • the number of such searches (random, without grounds for suspicion) undertaken since the implementation of the Terrorism Act 2000
  • the number of such searches which have resulted in further action (i.e. with a result that is not releasing the person searched without charge)
  • for those searches, what action was taken.

The Metropolitan Police have now replied with a full disclosure, which can be downloaded here, along with the full text of their reply and my request. The requested data can be summarised thus:

MPS Section 44 Searches; January 2003 – February 2008
Outcome Type Description Number of Searches
NO FURTHER ACTION 140,989
ADVISED 6,834
VERBALLY WARNED 1,730
ARRESTED 2,108
OTHER 39,817
Total 191,478

I’d hoped that my request would reveal more detail about those which were verbally warned and arrested (were these terrorism-related in any way?) but I clearly did not phrase this correctly, and will re-submit the request to clarify this. Interesting to know what ‘other’ is too.

One thing that definitely interests me is that the Police Officer in the video clearly says that the search is random, but the notes to my FOI request state:

S.44 searches are not random. The choice of persons stopped should normally be based on location, time, intelligence or behaviour by which the person brings himself or herself to the attention of police. Behaviour may include unusual actions or presence near a vulnerable location. The level of behaviour may not amount to ‘reasonable grounds’ and may be not much more than intuition on behalf of the officer. Any manner of profiling is undesirable where persons from a particular group are targeted by officers without existence of additional credible evidence.

This is somewhat confusing. To qualify for a Section 44 search the stop must not be entirely random, whatever the officer says. Is it enough to simply be in a public place at a particular time (in this case, a mainline railway station during a busy weekday) to qualify as not random?

Two other FOI requests based on this one and submitted by others are currently awaiting answers also:

Polite, on-topic and useful comments and discussion are very welcome. Others will be deleted.

UPDATE: my clarification was refused, as the investigation is closed, so I have filed a second FOI request.

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12 responses to “Section 44 Searches and my FOI requests

  1. Call me a trainspotter (stationspotter?), but that’s not Liverpool Street (which I use every day). I think it’s Waterloo (not that it’s important).

    Fascinating stuff though, keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for tagging my FOI request ( http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/section_44_of_the_terrorism_act#comment-192)

    I will let you know when I get an answer.

    I like your site. I have a similar site planned but focusing on civil liberty abuses in Nottingham. Such as how Nottinghamshire constabulary think there is a health & safety risk in revealing how many people have been arrested under anti-terror legislation: http://tregenza.livejournal.com/58467.html

    or how they arrest and hold innocent people for 6 days :
    http://tregenza.livejournal.com/55629.html

    Keep up the good work.

    Chris

  3. Simon – I think you’re right. Amended.

  4. Thanks for picking this up. As you can see, I’ve put in a FOI request to the British Transport Police.

    What interests me about the figures you received are the way they can be spun.

    Basically, 1% of s44 stops resulted in an arrest. That’s 99% of people who were needlessly delayed and/or intimidated. That really doesn’t look very good.

    However, there are two “nefarious” ways to spin the data.

    1) “During Anti-Terrorist searches, we arrested over 2,000 people.” Sounds like “We’ve arrested over 2,000 terrorists.” But it’s not! Who knows what those people did to be arrested. Maybe they had outstanding parking tickets, were carrying pirated DVDs or simply didn’t want to be searched. I’m not condoning breaking the law, but inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of citizens on the off-chance you’ll catch someone who may have committed a crime seems like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

    2) “Anti-Terror Stop And Search has a 27% Success Rate.” Over a quarter of the people stopped had some form of action taken against them. We don’t know what these verbal warnings were for. Maybe for carrying a few grammes of a category c drug – or maybe they were warned that their laces were untied. Who knows?

    I think this whole issue smacks of security theatre. What’s really annoying is that it’s driven by a tabloid desire to put bobbies back on the beat. It’s a shame that all the research shows it’s a waste of time and money.

    Thanks

    T

  5. Interesting video there. The Parliamentary discussion over these clauses can be read starting here:

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmstand/d/st000201/am/00201s03.htm

    Perhaps you could blog your opinion as to the quality of their debate for covering all the issues. I can’t find the House of Lords debate, but it’s probably better, and more willing to acknowledge the issue of police simply being able to intone the magic words “I believe there’s some terrorism here” and doing anything they like as a result.

    Parliament is the key forum for this. They gave the police these powers in 2000 (for no reason I can see), and they’re the only ones who can take it away when things get too silly.

    I am not a lawyer, but close reading of Sections 43 and 44 suggests that they are distinct, but easily confused.

    For Section 43, the officer must “reasonably suspect” you are a terrorist. Then there’s all kinds of stuff he can do to you.

    Section 44 allows him to stop anyone without suspicion, but his powers are then limited. I don’t believe he can ask you for your name, or take down your details, not even off your credit cards. That is not “searching”. The business about terrorists sometimes using stolen credit cards is baloney. Stolen credit cards are used for a lot of other crimes, and it’s about as good a claim as searching your pack lunch because all terrorists eat food.

    Articles can only be seized if they “reasonably suspect are intended to be used in connection with terrorism”. This is quite different from “can be used for terrorism”.

    Ultimately this is going to have to be resolved by someone with detailed understanding of the law (that’s very few people), getting themselves arrested, by, for example, not allowing the police to copy their details from their business card, and presenting their case before a judge that the police are wildly over-stepping the authority given to them by Parliament, as they appear to be doing so in this case.

    Or, another way to look at it, Section 44 is targeted at terrorist objects which could be in the area, and may or may not be in the process of being carried by people.

    If they want to bother people and take down their details, then that’s Section 43, which requires them to be suspicious of you.

    Oh, yeah. A hard-core videographer would have stuck around opposite the police and filmed and interviewed their next victim.

  6. My grandad (81!) had his car searched as he was waiting for me in Leeds railway station parking while I was picking up a friend. He stayed in the car to catch a short snooze while he waited.

    The officer opened the boot of the car, had a quick look around, and only after my grandad suggested he might also want to look beneath the boot floor cover, did he do so.

    As my grandad reported to me, “searching for bombs”.

    My personal suspicion is that somebody somewhere has search quotas to meet. Says my grandad, “about 8 policemen came out of the station, and one of them made a beeline for me” — another car (with owner) was searched in the same parking lot.

    Probably, my grandad dozing in his car made for a good, danger-and-surprise-free search.

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  8. Terrific use of FOI indeed – well done.

  9. One problem with this is that the Met, at least, are in the habit of seizing phones, digital cameras etc as “evidence” if they contain embarrassing pics; they will probably offer to forget it as long as you delete the images there and then.

    This would on the face of it constitute a crime (tampering with evidence?), but on the Holloway Road after midnight the force of this argument was less clear, as I recall.

    I recommend you immediately transfer the images to a memory card of some description, which would allow you to delete them from RAM; I doubt many of them would know the difference.

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