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England and Wales: New Proposals Would Give Police Targeted Stop-and-Search Powers to Tackle Knife Crimes

(Oct. 8, 2020) On September 14, 2020, the government published a public consultation to receive opinions about the design of its newly proposed Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs), which aim to tackle knife crime across England and Wales. The proposed SVROs would create a new stop-and-search power enabling the police to take an “intelligence based, targeted approach” to individuals who were previously convicted of carrying a knife or offensive weapon and, if introduced, could be issued regardless of whether the defendant had received a custodial or noncustodial sentence for the prior offense.

The new powers aim to reduce knife crime, which has increased significantly across England over the past five years, and catch repeat offenders of knife crimes, who comprised 29% of knife crime offenders in 2019. The Crime and Policing Minister was reported in the press as stating “[o]ur ambition is for these new powers to transform the way stop and search is used by targeting the small number of the most serious and persistent criminals.”

Under the proposals, the court would be authorized to issue an SVRO to an offender after he or she was convicted of a knife crime or a crime involving another offensive weapon. The government considered that SVROs should be issued automatically upon conviction, but noted that it believes the court should have the discretion to make the order, with a presumption that the order should be made. The police would be able to stop and search a person subject to an SVRO to see if he or she were in possession of a knife without having to suspect that a crime had been committed. If the police found the suspect was in possession of a knife, the suspect would be arrested, tried, and under the “two strikes” law would face a custodial sentence upon conviction.

The government stated in the consultation that it does not believe that children under the age of 18 convicted of knife crimes should be made the subject of an SVRO due to having “complex safeguarding needs,” but instead should be subject to other court orders that intervene to turn them away from crime.

The current law, contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, requires the police to have “reasonable grounds” to suspect a person is in possession of a knife or certain other items before stopping and searching that individual. The reasonable grounds test is an objective test and a police officer must have a genuine suspicion that the item searched for will be found. The College of Policing has noted that it must be “objectively reasonable for [the police] to suspect this, given the information available to them” and these grounds are subject to later scrutiny from within the police force. Thus, the police are unable to stop and search individuals solely on the basis that they have been convicted of an offense involving knives.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act also contains stop-and-search powers that may be applied to a certain geographic area if a senior police officer reasonably believes that an incident involving serious violence may occur, or that offensive weapons are being carried in the area without good reason. If an authorization is made under this law, the police may stop and search people for offensive weapons without cause for up to a maximum of 48 hours.

The government has stated that the proposed SVROs are a key and necessary part of a range of measures it has taken to decrease the number of crimes involving knives. The proposals have been criticized as disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities, particularly amid the current backdrop of tensions between these communities and the police. The government opposition was reported as stating the rise in crime is a result of cuts in policing and preventive services, and that SVROs are a piecemeal measure.