Can you be stopped by a plainclothes policeman?
I’ve posted before about the time I was stopped by police in an unmarked car.
I had just cycled through a zebra crossing, cutting in front of somebody crossing it on a bike. A car drew up alongside me and the lady in the passenger seat, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, told me off. I just ignored her. The car’s front grille then started flashing blue lights, I heard the siren and was pulled over. The same lady got out with her partner, both wearing Met police stab-proof vests.
My previous post explained why I don’t think I committed an offence at the time. The police just told me off, so maybe they agreed.
It made me wonder, though, what they could have done if I had committed an offence.
When you’re cycling, a police officer can only require you to stop if he or she is in uniform. If they’re in uniform and tell you to stop, you’ll commit an offence if you don’t. (RTA s. 163(2), (3))
Similarly they can only give you a fixed penalty notice if they’re a constable in uniform. (RTOA s. 54)
They don’t have to be in uniform to arrest you. But they can only arrest you if you’re suspected of an offence, and it is necessary to arrest you for one of the following reasons (which I’ve summarised):
- To enable your name and/or address to be ascertained (where they can’t ascertain this themselves, or have reasonable grounds for doubting whether what you’ve told them is accurate)
- To protect against danger to you, other people or property
- To prevent an obstruction of the highway
- To enable the investigation of the offence, or prevent prosecution from being hindered by your disappearance.
(PACE s.24(5). There are other powers of arrest, like anti-terror provisions, but they’re for specific situations and it’s probably quite unlikely the police would try to use them in a normal traffic scenario.)
So the plainclothes police officers in an unmarked car couldn’t have required me to stop, and couldn’t have given me a FPN. They could have arrested me if they thought I had committed an offence, but only if one of the other conditions above was satisfied – for example if they’d asked my name and address, but had reasonable grounds for doubting whether I’d told the truth.
But what about when they put their stab-proof vests on – were they then in uniform?
What counts as being in uniform?
The law isn’t much help here. In one case a police officer administered a breath test to a driver (for which he had to be in uniform) while wearing his full uniform except for his hat. The Court said that he was in uniform despite the fact that the hat was missing. (Wallwork v Giles  RTR 117)
The Court in the same case said that the purpose of the requirement that he be in uniform was so that he was easily identifiable as a police constable – nothing more. That would seem to suggest that so long as he has some police marking (for example a jacket) it would be enough.
On the other hand, in a later case the Court said that the purpose of the requirement is so that “the suspect has the satisfaction of knowing that the person asking for the breath specimen is a constable in uniform” – so you have to be able to see that he’s in uniform, not merely that he’s a constable. (Taylor v Baldwin  RTR 265, 270)
So it looks like the words in uniform carry their ordinary meaning, but it’s not necessary for a constable to be wearing full uniform. It’s not clear cut, but it seems to me that a plainclothes policeman in a police stab-proof vest is probably not in uniform. If just wearing a stab-proof vest (over jeans and a t-shirt) was enough, the requirement that the constable has to be in uniform would essentially be meaningless.
Calling for backup
I’ve been asked what would happen if you’re stopped by a plainclothes policeman, but asked to wait so he can call for a constable in uniform to come and give you a fixed penalty notice.
On reflection, I think a FPN issued like this probably would be lawful. For the constable in uniform to issue the FPN, he has to have reason to believe that you’ve committed a fixed penalty offence. In this scenario, he probably would have sufficient reason to believe this on the basis that his plainclothes colleague would tell him. (RTOA s.54; Copeland v McPherson  SLT 87, 89-90; Erskine v Hollin  RTR 199, 203)
Bear in mind, though, that the plainclothes policeman can’t require you to stop (see above), so if he wanted to force you to wait for the constable in uniform to come along, he would have to arrest you. If you’re not posing any danger to any person or property, and are prepared to give your correct name and address, then it’s difficult to see what grounds he would have for arresting you – he wouldn’t be doing so to enable investigation of the offence, for example, but rather to enable a penalty to be given.
Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t try. And you can judge for yourself the merits of debating cycle law with a plainclothes policeman who’s trying to arrest you. Practically speaking, if this happened your best bet would probably be to make sure you ask clearly for the reasons why you were being arrested – you could argue about the legal consequences later.
Photo by thardy1 from here http://www.flickr.com/photos/14684508@N02/4437462657/