The police use of “random” stop-and-search powers to tackle knife and gun crime must seem a “justifiable price” to pay for greater public security, the High Court said today.
Two judges rejected accusations that the Metropolitan Police had used the powers unlawfully in the case of a 38-year-old woman bus passenger who had insufficient funds on her Oyster to pay her fare and then acted suspiciously.
Ann Juliette Roberts, 38, of Upper Edmonton, north London, was subjected to a search under section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
She had become caught up in police attempts to combat an escalation of gangland violence in Haringey nearly two years ago.
Lord Justice Moses, sitting with Mr Justice Eady, ruled at London's High Court: "It is the very random quality of the power that provides an effective deterrent and increases the chances of discovering the weapons."
Rejecting Mrs Roberts' claim that her human rights had been violated, the judge said: "To those citizens in the particular wards in Haringey at serious risk of gang violence, the possibility of being subjected to a random search must seem a justifiable price to pay for greater security and protection from indiscriminate use of weapons."
Lawyers for Mrs Roberts, a black woman with an African-Caribbean heritage, argued that section 60 powers were being used disproportionately against black people without any adequate explanation.
Lord Justice Moses said he understood there were discussions taking place between the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in relation to section 60.
If the Commission was not satisfied as to the manner in which the powers were being exercised it was open to it to take legal action.
The judge described how Mrs Roberts, who is married with a grown-up son, was on a 149 bus on September 9 2010 in a location which was "a hotspot for violence where people carried knives".
A ticket inspector discovered that there were insufficient funds on her Oyster card for her fare.
When asked to leave the bus, she gave a false name and address to the inspector, dishonestly saying she did not have any identification with her. A police officer became involved in her questioning.
The judge said she was being questioned in Haringey, where two hours earlier Superintendent Christopher Barclay had granted an authority for stop-and-search powers to be used from 1pm on September 9 to 6am the following morning.
An updated intelligence report had revealed a number of incidents of serious violence concerning Turkish gangs believed to be involved in the drugs trade.
One armed gang was believed to be looking to confront another gang and named individuals were looking to get hold of firearms "to enhance their reputation".
Twenty intelligence reports had been received relating to violent crime and the use of firearms, knives and other offensive weapons.
The police feared further serious incidents of serious violence were likely to take place in that area.
The judge said the police officer who decided to search Mrs Roberts using section 60 powers said she appeared to be nervous and kept a tight hold on her bag, "as if she was trying to conceal something".
The same officer had earlier that day already searched a middle-aged female under the Misuse of Drugs Act and discovered a canister of CS spray and other offensive weapons.
But Mrs Roberts would not co-operate, resisted the search and attempted to walk away. She was handcuffed but had to be taken to the ground when she continued to resist. No weapons were found.
The judge said Mrs Roberts was of good character, and a caution she received for the incident was later quashed.
But he ruled there had been no unlawful deprivation of liberty under the European Convention of Human Rights.
He said: "Had the claimant not resisted, the search would probably have been as short as three minutes."
The judge ruled the police officer "had every justification for conducting the search" in Mrs Roberts' case, but then upheld random searches in any event.
The judge said it could not be disputed that the power of random search did give rise to a potential for racial discrimination. But requiring officers to have "a reasonable suspicion" that someone was carrying weapons before searches could be conducted would make it "all too easy for those who wished to conceal weapons whilst travelling around the wards of Haringey to escape detection".
He said: "It is the very random quality of the power that provides an effective deterrent and increases the chance of discovering weapons."
He added: "There is a stark choice. The alternative to a random search is to impose a requirement of reasonable suspicion. It is not possible to see how that would be effective for the purposes for which the power to give authorisation is conferred."
The power to authorise random searches was "in accordance with the law and not arbitrary".