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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 January 2010

'Stop and search' unlawful

Socialist Party and ISR members protest at the 2003 arms fair in Docklands, east London, photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party and ISR members protest at the 2003 arms fair in Docklands, east London, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

LAST WEEK the European Court of Human Rights ruled that 'stop and search' powers given to the police by the Terrorism Act 2000 are unlawful.

Greg Randall

Protester Kevin Gillan and journalist Penny Quinton brought the case. They were both detained and searched by Metropolitan Police officers on the way to a 2003 demonstration against an arms fair in London's Docklands.

Penny Quinton was stopped and searched even after showing the police her press card. Kevin Gillan was told he had been stopped because there "were a lot of protesters about" and the police thought they "might cause trouble". These were protesters campaigning against bombs rather than carrying them!

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives the police the power to stop and search on a "hunch". No reasonable suspicion is needed that an offence has been committed or that the person detained is carrying anything which might be used for terrorist purposes.

In theory, the power is only usable in a specific area designated by the police for no more than 28 days, so the Metropolitan Police designate all of Greater London every 28 days.

The power was used around 250,000 times last year. Black and Asian people are four times more likely to be stopped and searched under Section 44 than white people. Less than 0.1% of those stopped using this power are arrested for terrorism offences, let alone charged or convicted.

Terrorism

The power is useless as a tool against terrorism, so why keep it? To harass protesters and deter others from joining them as well as giving the police and state an extra bit of control over society.

New Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson intends to appeal the judgement and says that there's no need to change the law. It seems likely that the government will simply ignore a problem ruling. The Tories and LibDems have voiced concern but opposition parties become keen on repressive powers when in power and charged with protecting big business.

Even if the section was repealed, the police could use other powers. Kent police stopped and searched protesters at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008, including eleven year old twins.

They used Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which requires reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is carrying weapons or articles that could be used for criminal damage.

As this could include a nail file, the power is almost as wide as the Section 44 power.

Alternatively, the police can use their common law powers, as when Kent miners were stopped from crossing the Thames on their way to pickets in the North during their 1984-85 strike.

The damage has been done by the time anyone can bring a court case, which most people cannot afford to do and which might not succeed. Judges are not noted as being sympathetic to protesters.

Trade unionists have to act to defend the right to protest and organise. Ditching New Labour and setting up a party committed to democratic rights would be a good start.

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