It is in the news that the police handcuffed a woman claiming she "reached" towards her pockets after being told not to. Looking at the government and Metropolitan Police web pages there is no mention of any requirement to not reach towards ones pockets.

If one is stopped and searched is one required to follow orders, such as not "reaching towards" ones pockets? Is there any specific legislation that gives the police the right to use force in such a situation?

Report of what happened from the media:

Rocha, who was a friend of Dom Phillips, the British journalist murdered in the Amazon in June with Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, said she was approached by police shortly after reaching the street on which Bolsonaro was staying.

“They came straight at me … [One male officer] grabbed me by the arm and just started taking me to this corner and while he was talking to me he was holding both my wrists really strong. He was hurting my wrists. I was asking him: ‘Why are you holding me? Let me go.’”

“He kept saying: ‘We’ve received some intel that someone in a red T-shirt was going to commit criminal damage … so I’m going to search you and you are detained,” added Rocha, who was wearing a red T-shirt at the time.

Soon after the officer “got the handcuffs out and turned me around and handcuffed me with my hands behind my back”.

“I was in a state of shock … we knew the police were on high alert because of the funeral and all the state leaders that were here but we never expected anything like that.”

Footage of the incident seen by the Guardian shows a male officer searching Rocha’s pockets before handcuffing her and saying: “I told you, ‘Don’t go reaching towards your pockets again – and you reached’ … It’s not my fault you chose not to listen.”

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    That kind of question is something I never can understand. It should be obvious that putting your hands in your pockets is different depending on whether there is a tissue, a knife or a gun in your pocket. And the police don’t know at the moment, and they want to stay alive.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 16:56
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    Don't know how such things work in the UK, but in the US this would fall under the heading failure to comply/obey a lawful order.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 21:58
  • In most jurisdictions (I don't know any exceptions), people are obligated to obey lawful orders from police officers, though there can be disputes over whether an order is lawful or whether the person in fact disobeyed. In a sense, then, yes, under some circumstances an officer can make it a crime to put your hands in your pockets, but that's a somewhat skewed interpretation. It would be more balanced to say that an officer can, under the right circumstances, create a situation in which putting your hands in your pockets violates an existing, more general law. Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 22:08
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    My understanding is that the UK is not such a jurisdiction, in that the police cannot make you do any arbitrary thing by telling you to.
    – User65535
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 8:32
  • The question title is phrased in a very inaccurate way. The police can't "make something a crime", because only the parliament has the right to make laws which say what is and is not a crime. And police also can't punish crimes, because that's the job of the justice system. I would recommend to rephrase it to "Can the police handcuff someone for failing to comply with the order to not put their hand into their pocket?".
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 14:09

3 Answers 3


Only Parliament has the power to define crimes in law (well, also in the UK there are common law crimes, where ages ago the courts defined punishable wrongs). The police have the power to enforce existing law, but not the power to create new crimes. Part of police power is the power to use force to enforce laws. If a person is trying to kill another (which is a crime), the police can use force to stop the person from committing this crime.

Police power can be statutorily encoded (Parliament passes a law saying what police can and cannot do), or it could be part of common law. As for laws regulating a suspect, there may be a specific statutory prohibition – "you may not reach into your pocket" – or there is a common law inference to be made, that if the police have the power to order you to not reach into your pocket you may be forced to comply.

The subtle distinction here is that if it is a crime to reach into your pocket when told not to, you can be prosecuted and imprisoned. If there is no such crime, you just have the consequence that you can be roughed up to some extent for disobeying the police order.

One act of Parliament is the Offences against the Person Act 1861 §38 which says

Whosoever . . . shall assault any person with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of himself or of any other person for any offence, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years,

NB "assault" does not require physical contact: creating apprehension suffices. Another law is the Police Act 1996 §89 which says

Any person who resists or wilfully obstructs a constable in the execution of his duty, or a person assisting a constable in the execution of his duty, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, or to both

These laws do not exhaustively list all of the things that are forbidden (e.g. they do not say "may not bite. nor scratch, nor kick..."), instead, the prohibitions fall under the general rubric of assault and resisting.

Under the circumstances, it is possible that the person could be criminally prosecuted, but even in lieu of a prosecution, it is strongly probable that the police use of force in this instance was lawful. One would have to await the outcome of investigations and litigation to know for sure.


Police have the right to use "reasonable force" during a stop. This is intentionaly vague.

Reaching towards one's pockets in a confrontation can be seen as hostile. The reasoning behind this it's possible the suspect is doing so to retrieve a weapon, especially if the suspect has been told not to.

The stop and search may have been for fabricated reasons but the use of force will likely be considered reasonable.

  • 1
    In normal english (ie. not legalese) "the police can use reasonable force" is tangential to "the subject is not allowed to put their hands in their pockets". One is a right (?) of the police, the other is a restriction on the right of the subject.
    – User65535
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 14:15
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    It's common (and likely reasonable) that the police want to see your hands at all times during a stop. I think this is common practice everywhere. E.g. in the U.S. "please keep your hands on the wheel where I can see them" is a common command during a traffic stop, even if no search is being conducted.
    – Brandin
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 14:33

A police officer in England and Wales has powers to 'stop and search' you if they have 'reasonable grounds' to suspect you're carrying something that could be used to commit a crime.

A 'search' is not an 'arrest'. A search is not voluntary. If necessary they may use 'reasonable force' to search you.

The law providing for those police powers doesn't say you must comply with the instruction, it provides for their use of force if you make an obstruction.

Officers must seek the cooperation of those they are searching but they may use reasonable force as a “last resort”.101 This means that they can handcuff people to conduct a search in some circumstances. However, they should not routinely handcuff those they search.102 Automatically handcuffing someone without seeking their compliance with a search would be a breach of PACE Code A.103


101 s117, Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; Home Office, PACE Code A, paragraph 3.2

102 College of Policing, Stop and search: legal application, [last accessed 7 August 2019]

103 IOPC, The Learning Lesson: Stop and Search, Issue 33, November 2018, p22

Other answers mention the possibility that within the pockets there is a weapon or item that could be used as a weapon.

There is also the possibility that there is evidence in the pockets the person might try to dispose of.

Also there is the possibility your hands in your pockets obstruct the search of your pockets.

In the Guardian article:

A Metropolitan police spokesperson confirmed that shortly after 1.10pm on Sunday police stopped two women “who they had reason to suspect may have been in possession of items to commit criminal damage”.

“Both women were searched. One of the women was initially placed in handcuffs to safely facilitate the search after she repeatedly ignored instructions not to place her hands in her pockets. The handcuffs were subsequently removed,” the spokesperson added.

“No items of concern were found on the two women who were stopped and they were allowed to continue on their way without any further action.”

  • As with the other question, it does not obviously follow from the text of the law that you quote that one has to follow instructions such as "do not put your hands in your pockets". In fact it seems completely tangential. If the police are concerned for their safety there must be regulation that is more specific than this concerning what they are allowed to do? Equally, the situation where one may dispose of something must be obvious enough to not have to be inferred from such general language if this was really the law makers intent. Is there any case law that supports this interpretation?
    – User65535
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 14:01
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    @User65535 PACE provides for the power to stop and search and the use of reasonable force if necessary. The police are obliged to seek your cooperation ("don't put your hands in your pockets") before resorting to force. If you obstruct the search (you put your hands in your pockets) then reasonable force (temporary use of handcuffs) may be used to prevent you from obstructing the search.
    – Lag
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 14:35
  • @User65535 That law doesn't say you must comply with the police instruction, the law provides for the police use of force if you make an obstruction.
    – Lag
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 14:40

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