‘A camera can be a weapon’

You can be stopped for no reason

LIFE - AND WORK - on the streets remains as perilous as it has been for the past six years. Police can stop, search and detain anyone, at any time, for no reason, in areas "designated" by a senior police officer - which almost all of London is and has been for years. Officers have only to declare that they intend to search for "articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism". That's the Valentine's Day message to us all from a London court, which on 14 February rejected a case brought by London Freelance Branch member Pennie Quinton against the Metropolitan Police.

On 9 September 2003 Pennie Quinton was trying to film protests against the Defence Systems & Equipment International Exhibition (DSEi) arms fair at the ExCeL centre in London's docklands. Shortly after arriving in the vicinity of the arms fair, she found herself on a footpath adjacent to a dual carriageway road blocked by a police line. As she scrambled toward the road - or "emerged from the bushes" she was hailed by a detective constable and gestured to a traffic island.

Asking what this was all about, another policewoman told her that protesters held on the traffic island were being searched, that drugs had been found on one, and that she'd probably be searched soon. She was - and it was only later that she noticed that the search ticket said she had been searched under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000.

Pennie showed the constable her NUJ press card and indicated the phone number to confirm her identity using a PIN. This was ignored.

The key legal point is that under the Terrorism Act they can search for "articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism" at random, without having to give or have a reason. They may search for drugs, stolen property, offensive weapons or whatever only if they have "reasonable grounds" for suspecting that a person is carrying these. So civil rights organisation Liberty supported Pennie - alongside Kevin Gillan, who was stopped trying to join the demonstration - in bringing a case against police for unlawful detention.

The case had already been through the High Court and the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords, seeking a judicial review of the Terrorism Act. In March 2006 Lord Bingham opened his judgement:

It is an old and cherished tradition of our country that everyone should be free to go about their business in the streets of the land, confident that they will not be stopped and searched by the police unless reasonably suspected of having committed a criminal offence. So jealously has this tradition been guarded that it has almost become a constitutional principle.

"Uh-oh?" Indeed, he went on: "But it is not an absolute rule," and the key passage of the ruling is:

[a constable] need have no suspicion before stopping and searching a member of the public. This cannot, realistically, be interpreted as a warrant to stop and search people who are obviously not terrorist suspects, which would be futile and time-wasting. It is to ensure that a constable is not deterred from stopping and searching a person whom he does suspect as a potential terrorist by the fear that he could not show reasonable grounds for his suspicion.

Nevertheless, Pennie and Kevin then took action against the police. This meant a civil hearing with a jury of eight, tasked with determining the facts of the case. The above rather confusing passage from Lord Bingham generated a great deal of argument over what the police officers could be asked. In the end His Honour Judge Collins ruled that "the officers cannot be asked about 'reasonable suspicion'... but they can be questioned on the basis that they were not looking for articles related to terrorism but for something else and using the Section 44 powers as a cloak for something else."

In evidence - backed by video of parts of her detention - Pennie said that she had been detained for over 25 minutes in total. The constable had asked her to turn her camera off, and the lens cap had been put on, still recording sound. Noticing this, the constable had seized the camera from her and turned it off.

In a statement, the constable said that she had done this "because a camera can be used as a weapon". In court, the constable responded to all questions by saying she could not recall anything at all about the events. She had entered "POTA" on the search ticket, therefore she must have stopped Pennie legitimately under the Terrorism Act.

After two full days of argument and evidence, the jury deliberated for two hours. They found for the Metropolitan Police on all eight questions put to them.

Pennie, with Liberty, is now considering an appeal of this judgement. The Freelance understands that they intend to go to the European Court of Human Rights once they have finally exhausted the legal process in the UK.

Last modified: 15 Feb 2007 - © 2007 contributors
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