European court rules stop and search powers illegal
Judges decide section 44 violates claimant’s human rights but journalists and protesters are unlikely to see change on the ground says Leah Borromeo
12 Jan 10

Judges decide section 44 violates claimant’s human rights but journalists and protesters are unlikely to see change on the ground says Leah Borromeo

The Home Office is to appeal a European Court of Human Rights decision that the use of section 44 (Terrorism Act 2000) to stop and search individuals violates the right to respect for a private life guaranteed by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Section 44 has long drawn criticism from protesters who argue the police have used to power to infringes on their right to protest.

Policing and Security Minister David Hanson MP claims section 44 powers are “an important tool in a package of measures in the on-going fight against terrorism.” Hanson says the government is “disappointed” with the ruling and “will seek to appeal”.

The case brought to the ECHR was that of Kevin Gillan and journalist Pennie Quinton who were stopped and searched en route to a demonstration against the world’s largest arms fair, Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEi), in 2003. As she was stopped, Quinton volunteered her press cards with the hope of being waved on by the police. Instead Metropolitan Police she and Gillan were searched under Section 44 and ordered to stop filming.

Press freedom isn’t always a high priority for those policing protests, press cards, as any journalist can tell you, are no guarantee of special treatment by the Metropolitan Police. Those that read “NUJ” are taken less seriously by our uniformed friends because “anyone can get those”. Despite carrying press cards emblazoned with the logo of a corporate television station, I’ve not only been stopped and searched under Section 44 but also arrested. And charged. And am now due to stand trial this February. For impersonating a police officer while dressed in a bra and a boiler suit.

On other occasions I’ve been hassled by the Metropolitan Police while I’ve been armed with that typical terrorist ruse of a television news crew consisting of me, a reporter, a cameraman and a rather conspicuous satellite truck.

The Metropolitan Police are yet to issue any new instruction to their officers with respect to today’s ruling. I wonder how many stops and searches have happened since the court’s decision. Because the Home Office have three months within which to appeal, I doubt the general public will see much change in how the police operate.

Section 44 allows senior officers to designate entire areas of their patch as stop and search zones based on their likelihood of being a terrorism target. Every train station in the UK is covered by a Section 44 order and there are over 100 stop and search zones in London. Because the Home Office is afraid such information might give terrorists ideas, most exact locations of stop and search zones are kept secret. So nobody really knows whether you are in an area covered by Section 44 and whether they are likely to be stopped and searched going about your daily business. Even more invidious has been the way police forces across the UK have used section 44 to target protesters.

What I want to ask is, by saying they will seek to appeal the ECHR’s decision, what does the Home Office think it knows and who does it seek to control? And to what end? It’s as if, as people living in the UK, it’s assumed we are guilty and have to prove ourselves innocent.

Leah Borromeo is a foreign and current affairs journalist with nearly 10 years’ experience in television, print and online. She is is awaiting trial for impersonating a police officer at the G20 protests while wearing a black bra and blue boiler suit astride an armoured personnel carrier. While carrying a press card.