Police random stop-and-search powers halted

Image caption, The PSNI is to suspend stop and search powers

The power of the PSNI to randomly stop and search have been halted following an announcement by the Home Office.

The decision follows a European court ruling that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which permitted random stop and search was illegal.

Last year, the PSNI tripled its use of the UK-wide legislation arguing it was necessary following an upsurge in dissident republican activity.

However, Sinn Fein has welcomed suspension of the powers.

Policing Board member Alex Maskey MLA said the use of Section 44 "caused clear concern amongst a wide range of sectors".

He added that there was a perception in the nationalist community that the powers were being used disproportionately against it.

"Obviously, the PSNI have to work to ensure the safety of everyone within the community and to challenge any threat, regardless of where it comes from," he said.

"In saying that, they must do so in a way that is transparent and gains the confidence of citizens."

In 2008/9, the police used the anti-terror legislation almost 10,000 times, compared to 3,234 incidents in 2007/8, according to Policing Board figures.

A PSNI spokesperson said that stop and search "remains an essential tool in countering the terrorist threat".

"We use stop and search powers differently in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK both in terms of the proximity of the threat that we face and degree of targeted use that we make of them," the spokesperson said.

"We will continue to utilise available legislation in protection of the public and will do so in cooperation and consultation with the community we serve."

Ulster Unionist Policing Board member Basil McCrea MLA said police would now have to rely on other legislation which allows officers to search those they have a reasonable suspicion are involved in illegal activity.

He added that proving reasonable suspicion, which is sometimes based on intelligence, could be difficult.

"I am quite convinced that the PSNI will come back with alternative strategies that will protect all of the citizens of Northern Ireland from people that would do them harm," Mr McCrea said.

Last week, the Home Office was told it could not appeal against the court's decision, taken in January.

It followed a case brought by a journalist and an anti-war protestor who were stopped by officers near a London arms fair in 2003.

The European Court of Human Rights said the pair's rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated.

The court also ruled that the UK's stop-and-search powers were "not sufficiently circumscribed" and there were not "adequate legal safeguards against abuse".

It concluded that "the risks of the discriminatory use of the powers" were "a very real consideration".

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