Sometime during 2019’s notorious Detty December, I went on a night out for my girlfriend’s birthday. It was a long night and I made my way home around 2 AM in the morning exhausted and in urgent need of my bed. Usually, at night, I do not drive myself, so I was half asleep at the back of the car with my shoes off, enjoying the cool breeze of the AC.
Upon turning into my road, my car was stopped by 4 men dressed in all black and holding big guns in their hands. They had no form of identification and there were no marked vehicles in sight. All I could see was a danfo bus blocking the road and a 5th man at the wheel. To say the tiredness cleared from my eyes is an understatement. I knew who they were: SARS officers. I was uncomfortable.
These men asked me and the driver to step down from the car. They questioned me about where I was coming from and why I was out at that time of the night. I answered their questions calmly and politely. They began to search the vehicle, from the bonnet to the boot. I asked what they were searching for and was told to keep quiet and allow them to conduct their ‘investigations’. The driver was asked to present his driving license and the documents for the car, he too complied without hesitation.
Let’s discuss the police officer’s right to stop and search civilians in Nigeria:
The Police Act
By virtue of Section 29 of The Police Act, “a police officer may detain and search any person whom he reasonably suspects of having, in his possession or conveying in any manner, anything which he has reason to believe to have been stolen or otherwise unlawfully obtained.”
From a basic interpretation of this section, it is clear that although a legitimate police officer does have the power to search any civilian within the Federal Republic of Nigeria, this power is not absolute. The power of a police officer to search any civilian is contingent on there being circumstances that might have led the police officer to suspect that the civilian has stolen or unlawfully obtained any property in his/her possession, hence the need for a search.
Therefore, it would be fair to say that in a situation where the police officer does not have a reasonable basis to suspect that a civilian has stolen or unlawful goods in his or her possession, the said police officer does not have the legal right to search the civilian.
What is Reasonable?
The term “reasonable” is highly objective. It refers to a standard of reasoning an objective and prudent person, given a set of circumstances, would align with. However, many might regard reasonableness as a very vague term. It will vary from one case to another, and is highly dependent on the individual facts surrounding a particular case. Also, perception varies from one person to another. So I might analyse a situation and reach a particular conclusion, and other people might reach a slightly different conclusion. All conclusions will be valid as long as they are not too remote from each other. Generally, courts interpreting reasonableness will take into account normal practices, geographical area, usual conduct, and nature of persons involved.
What Should You Do in the Case of a Stop and Search?
If you ever find yourself stopped to be searched by a police officer, the following are some key things you should bear in mind:
- Take note of the officer’s name. You are within your right to ask for the name of the officer that wants to search you.
- When interrogated by the police officer, make sure you answer all questions promptly and clearly. Under no circumstances should you antagonize the police officer.
- Where the officer insists on searching, you can ask the police officer why he believes he has reasonable grounds to search you.
- If the police officer insists on searching you, please co-operate fully.
- Please note that if a woman needs to be physically searched by a police officer, this search must be conducted by a female officer.
After the car had been thoroughly ‘investigated,’ I was asked to empty the contents of my handbag onto the back seat of the car. I did this immediately, however, I could not help but wonder what exactly they were looking for. As the contents of the bag fell out, so did a $200 note I had held with me in case I needed to support my friend. The police officer started to stammer while eyeing the money suspiciously. He was practically salivating. At this point, I quickly reassembled my handbag and asked again for the reason why I had been stopped. They then told me I could go.
The Nigerian Police Force’s primary objective is to create a safe and secure environment for everyone living in Nigeria. Still, let’s be safe, cooperative, and vigilant.