The Rights of Suspects

The limits of police powers

Suspects have rights, and police powers are restricted by those rights. Suspect rights are in place to prevent police from exercising their authority on a citizen without reasonable cause for suspicion.

However, these rights can become complex, particularly with the introduction of recent anti-terror laws. There are some circumstances under which police have more power to exercise against a potential suspect.

Striking a balance between police power and the rights of a suspect is an important, yet delicate matter – give the police too much power and the rights of the people will suffer, but give suspects too much leeway and you neuter the police’s ability to catch genuine criminals and keep everyone else safe.

Article 5 of the Convention of Human Rights gives potential suspects protection against victimisation, bestowing “the right to liberty and the security of person”. In addition, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) governs much of what police can do, and what rights suspects have.

Powers of arrest

In many circumstances, police will need an arrest warrant to carry out an arrest – however, depending on the type of crime that the individual is suspected of committing, police may be able to circumvent this stage of the arresting process.

An arrest without a warrant is known in some quarters as a “summary arrest”. A summary arrest can generally be carried out for more serious crimes that can carry a fixed penalty or maximum penalty of more than five years in jail (such as joyriding, or shoplifting).

PACE defines a further category of more grievous crimes, such as rape, murder, or other crimes which could cause severe harm to an individual or the security of the state, or offences that lead to significant financial loss or gain to an individual or party.

For these crimes, police have greater detention powers than they would with suspects for less serious crimes, including the power to detain without charge for up to 96 hours and prevention of access to a solicitor.

Powers of detention

Under normal circumstances, police can only detain a suspect without charge for 24 hours. Holding a suspect without charge can only be done while the custody officer at the station determines whether or not there is enough evidence to charge them – if sufficient evidence cannot be found, or it is clear that sufficient evidence will not be found during the period of detention, the suspect must be released. The police must inform the suspect of the grounds on which they are being detained, as well as recording the grounds in writing on the custody record.

In certain circumstances, the police may be able to justify detaining a suspect beyond the initial 24 hour detention period. The normal detention period can be extended up to as much as 96 hours – by which point the police will have no choice but to release the suspect if they have no evidence. The only exception is if the police detain a suspect under the Terrorism Act 2000, which made it possible for the police to detain a suspect for up to 7 days without charge.

Once charges have been filed

Once the suspect has been charged, the police are legally obliged to release him or her, with the option of imposing bail conditions. However, there are a number of conditions that can enable the police to keep the suspect in their cells.

  • The suspect must be detained for their own protection – release could see them in harm’s way from another criminal element.
  • The name or address of the suspect is unknown to the police, or they have reason to believe that the name or address given is inaccurate.
  • The suspect is a juvenile (under the age of 18, or 16 in Scotland) and it is judged to be in their best interests to keep them in.
  • The police believe that the suspect will not attend court to answer bail, will commit another offence, or will interfere with justice and other investigations.
  • The police feel the necessity to carry out a drug test. This test can be administered if the police have reasons to suspect the usage of specific class A drugs by the suspect.

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