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Legal case

High Court confirms police officer’s power in custody to seize clothes

This case helpfully sets out the responsibilities for custody sergeants when dealing with detainees in custody.

The Chief Constable of Essex v Matthew Carter

Case Update

When a custody sergeant exercises their power pursuant to section 54(4) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (‘PACE’), they may do so if they have a subjective belief that it is necessary to do so. There is no requirement for that belief to be reasonable.

The Claim

The claimant claimed damages, including aggravated and exemplary damages, for assault. Following a 5-day trial before Recorder Dagnall, the majority of his claim was dismissed. The Judge however found that the force used to restrain the claimant to remove his clothing whilst he was in custody was unlawful because the custody officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe that the removal of his clothing was necessary.


The claimant was arrested for common assault and taken into police custody. When he was brought before the custody sergeant he was shouting and in an agitated state and refused to cooperate with the risk assessment process. He lashed out at an officer and was then pulled to the floor, forcibly restrained and placed in handcuffs. While in restraint, the claimant bit one of the officers who was attempting to restrain him.

The custody officer ordered that the claimant should be taken to a cell, that his clothing should be removed, and he should be provided with an anti-self-harm suit. On arrival in the cell area, the claimant continued to refuse to cooperate with the officers and his clothing was forcibly removed.

The Recorder held that a custody sergeant can require the removal of clothing (and officers can use reasonable and proportionate force to do so) but only if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the criteria set out in section 54(4)(a) of PACE is satisfied.


Section 54(4)(a) of PACE provides a custody sergeant with the power to seize clothes and personal effects if they believe they may be used for four specified purposes – including if they may be used to cause harm.


The Police appealed the Recorder’s decision on the basis that the custody sergeant needed only a belief, it did not need to be a reasonable belief. A challenge to a custody sergeant’s use of this power could only be maintained if the custody sergeant did not have that belief or, adopted a rigid policy without any regard to the individual circumstances of the detained person.


The court upheld the Police’s appeal, overturning the Recorder’s decision because:

  1. The Recorder was wrong to import a test of reasonableness into section 54(a) of PACE. Where PACE requires an officer to have reasonable grounds to exercise a power it specifically says so (e.g. sections 17 and 24 of PACE).
  2. The threshold for use of the section 54 power needs to be low because quick decisions may need to be made without access to all the information to ensure the detained person and others are protected.
  3. In any event, the custody sergeant in this instance, did have reasonable grounds for her belief.
  4. The force used in removing the claimant’s clothing was reasonable.


This case helpfully sets out the responsibilities for custody sergeants when dealing with detainees in custody. The threshold for use of their powers pursuant to section 54 of PACE is rightly low given the challenging environment in which they have to operate. Custody sergeants are entitled to take a precautionary approach if a prisoner is obstructing their ability to undertake the necessary checks and risk assessments because the consequences could otherwise be grave.

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