Police Powers: Stops and Searches
When can the police search me?
When they arrest you, the police can search you to ensure their own safety or the safety of the public, to prevent the destruction of evidence or to find evidence of the offence for which they arrested you. In some situations they may also have the right to search your car for the same reasons. If you are being arrested for a recent sexual assault, they may have the right to swab your penis.
The police may have the right to search your cell phone when they are arresting you. This is more likely the case if you are being arrested for a serious offence, for example, drug trafficking or a crime of violence. But they are limited to looking for evidence and only when searching promptly is important to their investigation so getting a search warrant would not be practical. They do not usually have the right to look at everything on your phone.
Consenting to a search
The police can also search if you give them "informed consent". This means you understand the possible consequences of the search and you agree to let them search you. The search must be limited to what you have consented to. But when they ask for your consent, the police only have to give the reasons they know about at the time.
So if you do not put limits on how the police can use what they find, they may be able to use it against you in the future. For example, they could keep a DNA sample that you give them and check it in a future investigation.
Searches for safety reasons
If the police have detained you because they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are connected to a crime and they need to detain you to investigate, they have limited powers to search you. They can do a protective "pat down" search for weapons if they believe that their safety or the safety of others is at risk. They can also search for weapons in your area if they have a serious concern about safety and a "pat down" search is not enough.
The police can also do a "safety search" if:
- they have reasonable grounds to believe that there is an imminent threat to the safety of the police or the public
- the search is necessary to eliminate the threat
Searches at public facilities
The law also gives the police power to search you in or on your way in to:
- court proceedings
- electricity generating stations
- nuclear facilities
This includes the power to search things that you have with you and a car that you are in.
A strip search is not a routine procedure. The police should not do a strip search unless they have already done a "pat down" search and have reasonable grounds to believe that a strip search is necessary to find weapons or evidence related to the reason that you are being arrested. A strip search should be done at the police station unless there is an urgent reason to do it before taking you to the station. You should not have to take your clothes off in front of someone of the opposite sex. If the police ask you to agree to a strip search, you should tell them that you want to speak to a lawyer right away.
Other reasons to search you
The police can also search you if:
- they find you in a place where they are searching for drugs and they have reason to believe that you have drugs,
- they find you in a vehicle where people are transporting or consuming alcohol illegally and they have reason to believe that you have alcohol on you illegally, or
- they have reason to believe that you have an illegal weapon or one that was used to commit an offence, and it might be removed or destroyed if they took the time to get a search warrant.
If the police wish to search you for any of the reasons listed above, you do not have a choice and you should not try to stop them.
If the police have reasonable grounds to suspect that you have illegal drugs in your possession, they may be able to use a drug sniffer dog to search you.
Evidence found on a search
If the police search you because they think you have committed an offence and find something related to another offence, they can charge you with the second offence. For example, if they find illegal drugs while looking for stolen property, they can charge you with possession of illegal drugs.
If you believe that you are being searched illegally or without a good reason, tell the police you object to the search and talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.