Search powers conferred by sections 289 and 303C of the Proceeds of Crime Act: code of practice

A code of practice on search powers for cash and listed assets under sections 289 and 303C of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, for constables in Scotland.

Annex B Conduct of searches – additional considerations where a vulnerable adult is involved


B.1 This Annex is designed to offer constables assistance in recognising the needs of vulnerable adults in relation to a search.

B.2 Vulnerability in this context refers to difficulties a person may have with understanding what is going on or communicating with the police.

General considerations

B.3 In practice, it may not always be obvious that a person has a vulnerability which might impact on the way that the search powers should be exercised. Constables must therefore always be aware of the possibility that a person to be searched may be vulnerable and tailor their approach accordingly.

B.4 Vulnerability is most likely to be encountered in situations where a person has a mental illness, a personality disorder, autism or a learning disability. These conditions are likely to impact on the way that the person is able to understand and communicate, and constables must be aware of the need to modify their language, tone of voice and physical behaviours to assist in communicating.

B.5 Vulnerability impacts on whether a constable can search a person, and how any search should be conducted.

B.6 It is important to identify vulnerability early, and constables need to consider the best method of identifying significant communication needs. This may require collaboration and communication between the police, other agencies and the individuals being searched, and may involve obtaining support for the vulnerable person.

B.7 Constables must focus on assessing the individual's communication ability and consider whether any support is required to meet that need. That may often be achieved simply by asking the person to explain any difficulties they have. Some people carry documents which explain the issues they have, such as an 'Autism Alert card' or a 'Keep Safe' card. Or it may be that the person is with friends or family members who can assist, or that there are others nearby (or contactable) who are able to help – including any professional who knows the person well. In some circumstances, constables may require to seek suitable support ( e.g. a responsible adult or interpreter) to assist them in communicating with the vulnerable person. Constables should explore all avenues to ensure that the person is fully aware of what is happening to them. The vulnerable person must be able to understand the nature and potential significance of police actions and questioning, as well as the nature and extent of their own rights, and to be able to exercise those rights in a meaningful way.

B.8 If suitable support is available, constables must balance the need to search the person with the proportionality of detaining the person until the person who is to provide support can attend, which may take some time. In some circumstances, this may not be justifiable, and constables will need to consider any other options available to them, always having regard to the person's wellbeing.

B.9 If suitable support is not available and it appears that the person lacks the capacity to understand why a search may be necessary, or what it will involve, then the presumption is that the search should not proceed. Constables will then need to consider what further action might be necessary to safeguard the person, where it is believed that they are being used to carry seizable cash or a seizable listed asset.

B.10 Speaking to constables may be a distressing experience for some vulnerable people. The mere presence of the police may cause them anxiety and impact on their ability to communicate. Constables should therefore have regard to the following factors in order to mitigate these effects:

  • Some vulnerable people may not understand personal space and may invade others' personal space, or they may need more personal space themselves;
  • Use of the person's name at the start of each sentence will help the person know that they are being addressed;
  • Clear, slow and direct instructions will allow the person time to process information – the use of technical or legal language should be avoided; extra time may be required for the person to fully process and respond to information/instructions and, so, the person may need more breaks during the search;
  • Rewording and repetition of questions in a different way may be helpful;
  • Language should be kept clear, concise and simple and short sentences should be used;
  • A vulnerable person should have it explained clearly what is happening and, if appropriate, where the person is being taken and why;
  • Visual supports, if available, should be used to explain what is happening; or, if the person can read, they should be shown information in writing;
  • Some autistic people with sensory issues will not like to be touched;
  • Any physical contact required should be kept to a minimum, and a full explanation should be given in advance; and
  • Facial expressions and hand gestures should be kept to a minimum to avoid distracting the person.

B.11 When conducting a search, constables should attempt to minimise any distress or embarrassment that the person might feel. Where practicable, constables should seek and take account of any views expressed by the person about the process, such as providing them with a choice of where the search can take place or how it might be conducted. The search should always be done discreetly and away from any peer group or other persons whom the person had been with when detained for the search.

Vulnerable persons as witnesses to searches

B.12 Vulnerable persons may also be witnesses to searches and, so, constables must be aware of the effect that such a search of another may have on them. Constables may therefore have to explain the process to persons other than the individual being searched in some circumstances.


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