Friday, 7 March 2008

Section 44(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000

This morning as I was exiting the train station I was stopped and searched by two police officers as part of a random search they were carrying out. The authority for this action is the titular "Section 44(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000" and as it was something completely out of the ordinary for me it's something that I've been trying to resolve in my head for the rest of the day - to clarify, I've been trying to figure out how I feel about it.

Now, I have to be upfront and say that the two officers who did it were very professional and friendly (although I did feel a bit weird standing there in public while one of them went through my bag and the other was writing out my name and details; I was wondering what people who passed by must be thinking about me and what kind of person I was). I asked immediately why they were doing it and so on, and also what they would use my details for etc, and they answered my questions in a friendly way, no problems.

Of course, I had nothing to hide, so really I had (and have) nothing to worry about.

Given that's the case, why do I feel really uneasy about it all?

Is it because Section 44(2) says "...the officer does not have to have reasonable grounds to suspect the individual stopped or searched of carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons or of involvement in the anticipated violence or terrorism"? Erm, yeah, just a bit actually. A preface to it all says that stopping and searching can be authorised by a senior police officer if "it is believed that incidents involving serious violence may soon take place in the locality, or that persons are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in the locality." So, firstly, what do they think might be about to happen in Liverpool?

Secondly, Section 44(2) really does mean that they can stop anyone. I appreciate that terrorists, murderers and psychopaths look just like anyone else, that they don't walk around wearing uniforms or black hats to make them easy to identify: but what path is a society on when one of the first steps is literally "start pulling people out of line and checking their bags because, you know, well, they could be a bad guy!"

"...the officer does not have to have reasonable grounds..." Can they have unreasonable grounds? How about "I didn't like the look of him," or "She looked just like the type" or even "Their skin was a different colour to mine." I mean, if you don't have to have reasonable grounds to do something, how do you decide what to do and when to do it? How do you make that judgement call?

Also Section 44(2) - while being a part of the Terrorism Act - is sufficiently vague in its definition of violence and so on so that one could probably use it away from the context of terrorism. Now I am categorically not saying that Britain is a police state, nor do I believe it is likely to become one in the near future, but it does worry me that there is a piece of legislation that says "someone decides that we need to search people here; someone else decides to stop and search people in that location and they can choose however they like because they don't need reasonable grounds to make that decision."

Worried about a demonstration or rally or something, or is someone higher up or wealthy worried about it? Sign a Section 44(2) form, just get the cops on to the streets and stopping whoever they decide! It's not as if they have to justify why they stop somebody!

I definitely don't have my thoughts on this worked out; I recognise that random searching could have a positive effect on security - and at the same time I really don't like it. Am I acting/thinking irrationally? Please, tell me what you think!

Finally, in taking my description the police officer asked my height. I told her, "around six foot four," and she noted it and then filled in a section just next to it. I couldn't read what she wrote, but of course I get a copy of the record. I looked at it when I got to my office, and just next to height is a space marked "Build." She had written "Prop."

What's that supposed to mean? All I can think of is "proportionate" but that seems like a weird descriptor...

(just looked over record again; in the section marked "Grounds for authority" (i.e., for the stop and search) she has just written "Authority"... I have that feeling that something is not right with the world in the pit of my stomach again...)

Have a good weekend people. More soon.


Bilbo said...

This is a very serious issue that we grapple with here in the States all the time. The police here are routinely criticized for practicing "racial profiling," that is, checking someone out because they are black/hispanic/middle eastern/etc. It seems that the only way to satisfy all the people worried about singling out specific ethnic groups is to inconvenience EVERYONE, whether they are likely to be guilty of something or not. But then you have the spectre of your situation: randomly picked out and examined for no apparent reason. Everyone will have some reason to object to any public safety and security measure we choose to take, especially nowadays. I understand your concern, but don't see any way around the problem. We just need to ask ourselves as a society how much of our perceived rights we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel secure from worse threats. I wish I had the answer. I'm curious to see what others think. Great post! Bilbo.

Amanda said...

That was an interesting post. I didn't realize that such 'random' checks were being carried out in the UK. But at the same time, I shouldn't be surprised. There are so many possible targets for terrorist attacks and yet I belive that no amount of 'racial profiling' is going to help the authorities pick the correct person to search. It must have felt a little invasive for you and the idea of 'authority' being the reason for your selection is scary but at they are doing something.

I was stopped for a full search at an airport last year even though I was carrying Aaron on one hip and his very visible diaper bag on my other shoulder. They seemed ashamed to pick me and kept apologizing. IT was a strange experience. Maybe they thought I was using my baby as 'cover'.

Anonymous said...

You might like

Celina said...

Well said.