24 December 2002

Staffordshire Police and their amazing drug testing computer

It has been widely reported in the press that Staffordshire Police have been using a new drug testing computer to identify people who have been in contact with drugs. Rather than rely on the tried and tested approach of using sniffer dogs, passive or otherwise, Staffs Police wanted to go one better and use Communities Against Drugs (CAD) Money to buy £40,000 of computer equipment to search for people who use drugs.

The big difference between the dogs and the computer is that the computer cannot run around, sniff, and sit down when it smells drugs. Normally, such canine action would give the police the reasonable grounds for a stop and search.

Instead, the police need to ask for permission to swab with you. While a dog sticking it's nose in your crotch has held not to be assault, unwanted swabbing by the police in this situation would not be acceptable.

The twist here is that, while the police cannot force anyone to consent to a swab test, they are suggesting that unwillingness to do so would be considered grounds for suspicion, and so would mean that you may be questioned further.

Liberty has condemned the scheme, but, strangely, old comrades at Release have been strangely silent on the subject.

The following information may be of use too:

1) You are not obliged to give a swab test to the police. Any attempt in this situation to get a swab test result without your consent would constitute assault.
2) Simply refusing to give a swab test would not, itself, constitute grounds for searching on the basis on the grounds of suspicion. While a person could consent to being searched, it seems probable that the police would be exceeding their powers if they attempted to enforce a search based on a refusal to be swabbed.
3) The article says that the machine tests for a range of drugs and includes heroin and rohypnol. It seems likely that the machine, which gives very simple answers, would be unable to differentiate between various benzopidiazepines or opiates; hence there is a high risk of false positives for people who have used or come into contact with lawful substances. We would therefore be concerned that the presence of a positive result would still not in itself be grounds for a search.
4) Landlords in this situation are being put in an intolerable position. The licensing regulations require them to act reasonably to stop use and supply on their premises, and failure to do so could jeopardise a license. But what the police are doing here is coercive and the Institute of Inkeepers should make representations.
5) A positive test can not be used in this situation to prove past possession. But a statement admitting to past possession could be used to convict. So anyone submitting to a test and testing positive should make no statement and should not admit to past-possession.
6) Please pass this on to other people in the area, so that they know their rights.