Page last updated at 08:16 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Stop-and-search trebles in a year in Northern Ireland

Police officer on patrol in in the grounds of Stormont, Belfast
Police need to be fully briefed on the extent of stop-and-search powers

Police tripled their use of stop-and-search in Northern Ireland last year, Policing Board figures have revealed.

In 2008/9, the PSNI used the anti-terror legislation almost 10,000 times, compared to 3,234 incidents in 2007/8.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allows police to act without reasonable suspicion, was last week ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

A NI Policing Board report has said it must not be seen as an easy alternative to traditional policing methods.

The rise in Section 44 searches in Northern Ireland followed an increase in dissident republican attacks.

The board's Human Rights Report, published on Thursday, said officers should be fully briefed about the extent of the power and how it is to be used.

"The Section 44 authorisation should never be viewed as an easy alternative to the Police and Criminal Evidence (Pace) power; police officers should resist the temptation to resort to Section 44 because he or she need not have reasonable grounds for suspicion," the report stated.

Rights violated

Under Pace, police must have grounds for suspicion to stop-and-search, but under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, the home secretary can authorise police officers to make random searches in certain circumstances.

The power is intrusive by its very nature and therefore police officers must be particularly mindful that it is exercised in a way that is lawful, proportionate and necessary to pursue a legitimate aim
Policing Board report

Human rights adviser Alyson Kirkpatrick will be reporting back to the board later about the PSNI's use of Section 44, given the European Court's ruling that the right to respect for a private and family life was violated by a case of stop-and-search in London.

"As the exercise of the power is predicated upon a lawful authorisation rather than reasonable suspicion, this is a marked departure from the long-established principle that a person could not have his or her freedom interfered with save where there was reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence," her dossier said.

'Heightened threat'

"The power is intrusive by its very nature and therefore police officers must be particularly mindful that it is exercised in a way that is lawful, proportionate and necessary to pursue a legitimate aim."

It is designed to combat a heightened threat and must only be applied where justified, the National Policing Improvement Agency has said.

Thursday's report said all officers should be reminded that other powers are available and may be appropriate.

"A comprehensive understanding of the legal issues and the effect an exercise of power may have on the community is essential to ensure officers exercise the power in a proportionate manner," it added.

"For example, the Pace power should be used where there is a reasonable suspicion of the commission of an offence."

Chairman of the board's human rights committee, Basil McCrea, said the PSNI had expressed a willingness to engage with the board.

"Whilst recognising the need for the police to have access to stop-and-search powers to assist their role, the public also need assurance that the police are fully accountable in their use of these powers," he said.



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SEE ALSO
PSNI search powers under scrutiny
15 Jan 10 |  Northern Ireland
Police anti-terror searches fall
26 Nov 09 |  London
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29 Jul 04 |  London
Pair seek unlawful search ruling
12 Jul 04 |  London

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