High Court Rules on Police Use of Force in Detainee Clothing Removal Case

Citation: [2024] EWHC 126 (KB)
Judgment on

Introduction

The High Court case of The Chief Constable of Essex v Matthew Carter is a pivotal legal ruling examining the appropriateness of police actions during a suspect’s detention and the application of force when removing clothing. The judgment navigated the interplay between the actual belief of police officers, the requirement of reasonableness in such beliefs, and the necessity of employing force articulated within the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the related Code of Practice.

Key Facts

Matthew Carter, the claimant, was detained by Essex Police following an altercation. During his detention, he experienced three contentious phases, which included physical restraint, forced removal of his clothes, and a conflict over a latex glove. The crux of the case lay in “Phase 2,” where Carter’s clothes were forcibly removed without his permission in a cell, deemed a strip search, which prompted his claim for damages citing personal injury and impermissible police conduct.

Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)

The court scrutinized Section 54 of PACE, which empowers custody officers to seize clothing from detainees under certain conditions. The Appellant contended that the law only necessitates an honest belief from the custody officer that the detainee may use the clothing to cause self-harm or harm to others, while the Respondent suggested that reasonableness must be an aspect of the belief. The Recorder initially included reasonableness in his interpretation, which was contested in this appeal.

Application of Reasonableness

Upon appeal, it was argued that the Recorder erred by imposing a reasonableness requirement on Sgt Bailey’s belief in the necessity of removing the claimant’s clothing. The Appellant highlighted that PACE provides for the need of a custody officer’s honest belief without a statutory requirement of reasonableness.

Use of Force

Section 117 of PACE was brought under scrutiny regarding the necessity and proportionality of the force used by the police officers. The appeal also tackled the decision-making process involved in escalating to use of force, exploring whether the police had alternatives to forcibly removing the claimant’s clothes.

Right to Silence

The Recorder considered the claimant’s right to silence as a relevant factor; however, the Appellate Court found it to be inapposite, noting that the right of silence pertains to self-incrimination and is unrelated to a detainee’s cooperation during risk assessment processes.

Importing Code of Practice Provisions

The court also reviewed Annex A of PACE Code C, which governs strip searches. The Recorder initially applied Code C’s requirement of reasonableness to Section 54(4), a point challenged in the appeal as introducing an improper legal standard.

Outcomes

The appeal was permitted on the basis that the Recorder misdirected himself by inserting a reasonableness requirement into Section 54(4) of PACE — an interpretation that was found unwarranted given the statutory text’s deliberate silence on the matter. It was judged that the officers had grounds to believe Carter could use his clothe to harm himself or others and that the use of force was deemed necessary and reasonable.

Furthermore, the assertion that Sgt Bailey had a general policy of stripping detainees who did not answer risk assessment questions was rebutted by evidence given during the hearing. The case thus reinforced the autonomy granted to custody officers when fast, decisive action is required to ensure safety within the custody environment.

Conclusion

The judgment in The Chief Constable of Essex v Matthew Carter affirms the legislative intent of PACE, underscoring the limited threshold for police beliefs about detainee risks without the condition of reasonableness. It clarifies the legal expectations for the use of force within the police custody context, delineating the bounds of police discretion for ensuring the safety of detainees. The verdict serves as a legal guide for police protocols and will influence future application of force and conduct of risk assessments within custodial settings in the United Kingdom.

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