#StreetLaw 1 – Stop and Search

…or a how a group of S3 pupils played a part in this week’s FMQs.


I’ve written before about The Law Society of Scotland’s expanded Street Law programme and how excited I am by it. On Tuesday, I took my first lesson at Bellahouston Academy with an S3 class. The subject was Police Scotland’s use of Stop and Search [S&S] – and the BBC came in to film some of for a report they were doing – more of which later.

The Premise

The first thing we asked the class was whether any of them had been Stopped and Searched by the police. One boy mentioned an incident where a whole group of people were searched leaving a party – although he did mention that someone was stabbed, so maybe that was justified. No-one else at this point said they’de been S&S’ed, which was concerning as we were going on the premise that at least a few would have been. It wasn’t fatal, since we wan’t to discuss a more practical side of the law, but it would still have been good form more people to have been able to relate to the issue at hand. Never the less, my Street Law Partner (David) and I powered through and carried on.

The Execution

The kids were put in groups (or more accurately, worked in the groups they were in since the BBC kept stealing our time wiring us up with microphones and whatnot) and given sheets with different scenarios on them. For each, the class were asked whether they thought the Police should have the power to stop and search the people involved. For example, one asked:

Tim and his mates are playing football in the park when the police come and decide to search them all. The boys are known for being trouble in the neighbourhood so the Police line them all up against a wall and search them all individually. They find nothing.

All the groups agreed that Tim and his team’s pitch invasion wasn’t justified at all. Some even pointed out that just because someone was misbehaving in the past, you can’t assume they’re causing trouble this time too. I wonder if the girl who said that knew she’d given a fundamental rule of Scottish Evidence law? But that’s a pretty uncontroversial scenario. The one that caused the most debate was this one:

It is a busy Saturday afternoon on Buchanan street and a man has been stabbed. The last thing he manages to mutter before he dies from his injury is that it was a tall man in a turban. The police then pull over everyone on Buchanan Street in a turban to be searched for the weapon.

The class was quite evenly split on this. Some argued that, since only a certain group of people wear turbans, it was racial discrimination while others said that they since the police had nothing else to go on, in this case, it could be justified. This led to a great bit of debate about what could justify a search. One boy suggested that the police needed to have a ‘good hint’ that a person was up to something dodgy in order to S&S them – stumbling upon the legal definition that states that the officer must have “reasonable grounds of suspicion” to search someone.

The Conclusion

During the the discussion, one boy shared that, just a few weeks ago he was S&S’ed by the police on the way home from school. He was with his friends and the police asked to S&S him. Two points of his story stood out for me. The first was that the police officer never told him what he was looking for. It was only when the boy asked what he was looking for he said he was looking for drugs. Then the boy said that when the police asked to search him he said yes (i.e it was a “consensual search”). I asked why, and he said that it was because they were the police and he didn’t know if he could say no.

This got us wondering – what did the class think they had to tell police if they were caught. Answers we got included your name and address (which people who are being S&S’ed are legally required to give the officer stopping them) but also included where you’re going, what you’re doing and where you’ve come from. There were looks of genuine shock when we told them that they didn’t have to say a thing to police, other than confirm their name, address and nationality. It was obvious that these kids didn’t know their rights – and now they were a little more aware.

The last thing we did was ask two questions. The first was whether the class felt knew more about S&S than when we started – the answer being a resounding yes (which was comforting). The second was whether, after all the discussion and issues we’d identified like unfair use and police abuse of the power, the class would keep S&S or get rid of it altogether. Surprisingly, the class voted about 3:1 to keep it. Maybe there is some good in it after all.

The Fallout

As I mentioned, BBC Scotland were there filming the class for a story on S&S they would be running that week. We didn’t know what they were looking for or what they would use – but seemed pretty keen to include some of the class’s opinions in their piece.
On Wednesday it emerged that Police Scotland, despite saying last June they wouldn’t search under 12s, have S&S’ed over 350. On Scotland 2015 the Police Scotland representative argued that since most of these were consensual, it was OK. But, thinking back to my Street Law class, was it true consent – or is it that the kids didn’t know they didn’t have to consent? Bearing in mind children under 12 generally can’t agree to much – even if they said yes freely, can that still be taken as proper consent?
The following day, partly in thanks to the BBC’s report, Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader) asked a question at FMQs on police use of stop and search generally, given that around 90% of S&S’s are negative. I like to think that David, myself and the S3 class at Bellahouston helped shape the agenda for a week or so.


Teaching Points

+ Working in smaller groups, feeding back to the class is effective.
+ Relating directly back to the class’s experiences is a good way to get them involved.
– Mix up the groups a bit more – encourage new discussions.

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