Police Powers And Citizens’ Rights: Stop, Account, Search, And Detention

September 3, 2016, will mark 150 years since the establishment of a police force in Sri Lanka. Although those years have seen the growth of the force in diverse ways, they have also borne witness to an increase in the misconceptions surrounding the scope of its powers and responsibilities. So much so, in fact, that the Sri Lanka Police website now has a page dedicated solely to addressing them.

Much of the misapprehension can be attributed to the public’s lack of access to the relevant laws, as well as their archaic nature – the Police Ordinance, for example, still refers only to carts and “other vehicle[s] drawn by horses, bullocks, or other cattle”. This is the primary enactment governing the powers and responsibilities of the Sri Lankan police force since its being brought into effect in September 1866 ‒ and it has remained unchanged since the last amendment made to it in 1947. The Police Act of 1949 is similarly outdated, with the latest amendment to it being made more than three decades ago in 1984.

Of the many domains in which the police force exercises responsibilities and powers, the largest number of misconceptions surround a few in particular – namely the police powers of stop, account, search, and detention.

Stop And Account

You must be prepared to provide evidence of your identity should the police ask to see it. Image credit: Roar.lk/Minaali Haputantri

A stop and account occurs when a police officer stops you, asks you to identify yourself and account for, among other things, what you’re doing, why you’re in a particular area, where you’re going, and what you’re carrying with you.

  • A stop and account may be carried out at any time by any police officer

    Contrary to what you may have heard, an officer does not have to be a traffic police officer to stop you on the road. Nor is it necessary for two or more officers to be present in such a situation. A single police officer has, by virtue of Section 162 of the Motor Traffic Act and Section 56 of the Police Ordinance, complete authority to stop you while you’re driving, or even walking, on the road.

  • You must always be prepared to produce to the police evidence of your identity and, when you’re driving, your driver’s license

    Once you’ve been stopped, the officer is authorised to ask you for evidence of identity, in which case you’re required to show him your national identity card, passport, or driver’s license.

    While there are some situations involving female drivers and pedestrians in which a female police officer is required to be present, any officer, male or female, has the right to ask a female for their name, address, proof of identification, driver’s license, telephone number, and any other questions that may be relevant in the circumstances.

    Any police officer, traffic police or otherwise, who stops you while you are driving may, by virtue of Section 135 (1) of Motor Traffic Act, ask you to produce your driver’s license. However, an officer may only withhold your license if he is able to tell you exactly what you did wrong along with the relevant penal code violation.

Stop And Search

Police officers are also authorised to ‘stop and search’, but there is a standard procedure that must be followed. Image credit: Roar.lk/Minaali Haputantri

A stop and search occurs when a police officer stops you and searches your person and/or your vehicle.

  • A search may only be the result of reasonable suspicion

    A stop and search — where you are patted down, required to turn out your pockets, or pop open the boot of your car — may be carried out by any police officer at any time, but only if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are in possession of illegal items or have another, equally legitimate reason for doing so.

  • A search of your person and/or your vehicle may be carried out anywhere, so long as it is in line with procedure

    While such searches are usually carried out in public places, it does not follow that searches may not be carried out elsewhere.

    There is, however, a standard procedure that must be followed. The officer in question must identify himself and this is so even when he is in his official uniform. You must be given reasons as to why you were stopped and why it is necessary for a search to be carried out.

  • A strip search may only be carried out in an enclosed area

    Where the police carry out a strip search or require you to remove any articles of clothing of religious significance, it must be done in an enclosed area. Even then, the officer in question does not have the authority to have you remove your undergarments.

    You may only be patted down or body searched by an officer of your own gender.

    Section 30 of the Criminal Procedure Code specifically states, “whenever it is necessary to cause a woman to be searched, the search shall be made by another woman with strict regard to decency”. This means that where a police officer of your own gender is not present, the search may be carried out by another person of your gender deemed competent by the officer.

Detention: Specific Situations

A single police officer who suspects you of having committed an offence can take you into custody and also press charges against you. Image courtesy: lankanewspapers.com

Section 162 of the Motor Traffic Act empowers a single police officer who suspects you of having committed an offence not only to take you into custody but to also press charges against you. Where the person being taken into custody is female, this may only be performed by a woman.


A police officer with reason to believe that you’re driving under the influence may, under Section 151 of the Motor Traffic Act, require you to submit yourself to a breathalyser test or even, in certain situations, a medical test carried out by a government medical officer.

This means that it is not necessary for the officer to establish on the spot that you were, in fact, driving under the influence. You may not leave until you have complied with any tests that the officer may prescribe.


A police officer is authorised to take you into custody if you are found to be speeding recklessly. While it is the norm to have a speed detection device on hand to prove such a claim, it is not mandatory. You may be taken into custody and have charges pressed against you where it is evident to the officer that you are guilty of reckless driving.

General Guidelines

It’s always best to keep in mind the rules governing police powers in Sri Lanka, as well as your rights in regard to these rules. Image credit: AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara/Getty Images

  • Where you have committed a road offence, it is more often than not at the discretion of the police officer in question to decide, based on the severity of the offence, whether to bring you to trial or levy a fine in lieu of court proceedings
  • You may record and/or film the police in public spaces so long as it is done in a manner that doesn’t obstruct justice.
  • If, following an encounter with the police, you feel as though you were treated unfairly or without respect, you may lodge a complaint at the police headquarters.

It appears, despite the many misconceptions surrounding the police powers of stop, account, search, and detention in Sri Lanka, that there is ‒ at least in the realm of official practice ‒ a generally accepted set of rules defining them. It’s best you keep them in mind the next time you venture out onto the streets, whether on foot, in your motor vehicles or vehicles drawn by horses, bullocks, or other cattle!

Featured image courtesy: onlinejaffna.com

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