How to Search a Person

Keeping people safe is a tricky prospect, especially when a duty to protect them clashes with their personal freedoms.

Though the majority of venue patrons don’t seem to mind being searched, it’s fair to say that nobody actually LIKES it. Accordingly, searches must always be conducted professionally, respectfully and with strict adherence to the law.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at the legality of searches, when and where they are acceptable and what to do if something illegal is discovered whilst searching a patron. We will also discuss professional conduct during a search and what to do if a patron refuses to comply or becomes aggressive.

When it comes to this guide, we hope YOU find what you’re looking for!

What Legal Powers do Door Supervisors Have?

Under UK law, a door supervisor has few powers beyond those of the general public.

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Door supervisors aren’t afforded any extra powers under their SIA licence to perform searches, but it is an important part of their job and should be performed by both male and female members of staff, wherever possible.

These searches can be performed anytime and anywhere with permission of the person.

Searches must also be limited to bags, pockets and outer layers of clothing. Door supervisors must not, for example, check a person’s underwear for hidden items. To do so would amount to assault.

Door supervisors have the power to confiscate any illegal items (e.g., drugs, fake IDs or weapons) that they find while searching a person. In such incidents, they should call the the police. This is also the case in incidents wherein a serious crime has been committed.

Door supervisors cannot forcibly search a person under any circumstances and should adhere to the venue rules about search.

What Legal Rights do Patrons Have?

A door supervisor has the right (and indeed the duty) to eject from the premises anybody that appears to be violating either the laws of the land or the rules of the venue as set out by that venue’s owners.

A patron who is about to be ejected may decide to carp on about their rights, but the truth is that no specific rights apply if they have violated either British law or the rules of the venue.

In legal terms, the venue is a privately-owned building and the owners have extended a conditional invitation dependent upon the patron’s ability to adhere to the rules they have set out in advance. A patron breaking the law or failing to comply with the rules will be asked to leave and, should they fail to do so, they may be considered to be trespassing.

If the patron refuses to leave after being asked, they will have to be forcibly removed from the premises. In such cases, they are not allowed to be harmed, though they can be carried or lifted and put outside the venue.

If the patron becomes violent or aggressive, any force used in self-defence or in order to restrain them is subject to the laws governing the use of reasonable force in such scenarios and must therefore be proportional to the threat being presented by the patron (and must never exceed it under any circumstances).  

If the patron has not violated either the rules of the venue or the law, it is still legal, though risky, to eject them. In cases such as these, they have committed no crimes and have obeyed the wishes of the building’s owner(s). Should they be ejected without cause, they may consider this to be discrimination, or some other form of unfair practice and the venue may become vulnerable from a legal standpoint.

Both the door supervisor and the patron are subject to the laws governing assault. Therefore, if the door supervisor threatens the patron with physical violence, this can legally be considered a form of common assault in the eyes of the law. This works both ways, however and the laws governing assault apply to both parties equally.

Once the patron has been ejected and is outside the premises, the door supervisor may only come into contact with them should they attempt to regain entry to the premises or commit a serious crime.

If the patron attempts to regain entry, they can be removed once again in the same fashion as before. If they attempt to commit a serious crime (such as burglary or assault), they can be placed under citizen’s arrest until the police arrive.

What if a Patron Refuses to be Searched?

The patron has a legal right to refuse a search, although they might be denied entry to the venue if they opt to do so.

The security professional must be upfront and honest with the patron about the facts that a search is conditional upon their entry to the venue, that it is a policy decision made by the owners of the venue and that the search is only to ensure that dangerous or inappropriate items are not being allowed onto the premises. What items are or are not allowed into the venue is decided by the venue’s owner(s), not the door supervisor.

All searches must be conducted with the patron’s consent. Therefore, if the patron refuses to consent to a search, then a search cannot be conducted.

Venues are required to place notification of their search policies at or near to the building’s main entrance. This can then be easily referred to in cases where a patron refuses to be searched.

The Correct Way to Conduct a Search

It is important that the person being searched be put at ease early on in the proceedings. Often, people are nervous about a search, even when they have no reason to be. Do not mistake their awkwardness or embarrassment for a display of guilt.

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Patrons can usually be relaxed slightly by the door supervisor adopting a polite, friendly manner. It helps to remind the patron that everyone is being searched in the exact same manner and that they aren’t being ‘singled out’ in any way. It may also help if the door supervisor asks the patron to help with the search (they may do this by voluntarily turning out their pockets or emptying their bags).

Make extra effort with those who are unable to speak English, or with those whose ability to understand English is limited. This should also apply to those with various disabilities. The goal is for the patron to understand the purpose of the search and to consent to being searched without upset or incident.

If the patron begins to show signs of discomfort or embarrassment about something they have on their person, it can help to share a story of something even more embarrassing or strange that turned up in a previous search (ideally months or years earlier, the example should not be drawn from the same night/event). This strategy not only puts their mind at ease, it also shifts their focus away from their own feelings of embarrassment.

Engaging the patron in conversation will also help to discern their mental and emotional state, as well as whether or not they are significantly inebriated. People who react aggressively to a search might warrant extra observation once they are inside, for example.

Efforts should be made to conduct each search in the same way as the search that preceded it. This way there will be less grounds for people to feel discriminated against.

Where possible, there should be a mixture of males and females conducting searches. Technically, a male should only search male customers and a female should only search female customers. However, male door supervisors in the UK outnumber females by a significant margin, which suggests that there may not always be a woman on duty.

It is permissible in such cases for male door supervisors to search female patrons (and vice versa), but these searches must never be physical in nature. A female customer may turn out her pockets or empty a handbag at the request of a male door supervisor, but she must not be touched. If a customer of the opposite sex to the door supervisor refuses to consent to a non-physical search, he or she should be politely turned away (see above).

If a person appears to be transgender or transexual or explains that they identify as transgender, allow them to select which sex they would prefer conducting the search.

Searches should be conducted by more than one door supervisor. A common defensive tactic among those caught with contraband is to claim that it was planted there by vindictive bouncers. Whilst this has probably actually happened at some point in time, it is vastly more likely that the person making this claim is simply trying to cover their own guilt. Multiple door supervisors can corroborate and verify each other’s accounts, making it far less likely that this kind of lie will gain any credibility or traction.

If something illegal is discovered, it must be immediately confiscated and given either to the venue’s managers or the most senior door supervisor on duty. It absolutely must not be placed anywhere on the door supervisor’s person, even temporarily.

In the case of drugs or weapons, seizure is basically a public service, as it takes these dangerous items out of circulation. The door supervisor should not hesitate to take them and should not give them back, even if the person holding the item agrees to leave the venue peacefully.

In cases where the items are not illegal, but are also not allowed into the venue, it is best to simply return them to the patron and send them on their way. In some cases, items may be held in storage until the patron exits the venue (this will be discussed later).

It is preferable to have searches conducted on film, either under the purview of CCTV or else using body-mounted cameras. This is hugely beneficial from a legal standpoint.

Use of special equipment such as thick gloves (to protect from knives or needles), stab vests and metal detectors is also advisable.

Door supervisors should be sure to always thank the patron after searching them.

Professional Standards & Practices

There are a number of professional standards that must be met when searching someone. The cultivation of good working practices is essential if these standards are to be met. As with all things, excellence is a product of habit.

The door supervisor should always strive to be approachable, basically friendly and above-all professional. The goal is not to intimidate – and venues with intimidating door staff likely won’t generate as much business as those with a more welcoming atmosphere.

The person being searched should always know who is searching them. This means that their SiA licence needs to be worn by the door supervisor at all times. The door supervisor should always be dressed in full uniform as well, as this identifies them as a member of staff.

Any information that the patron is required to know should be imparted in a clear and direct fashion and any questions they have should be answered politely. If these guidelines are adequately followed, there should be no ambiguity in the minds of the patrons about who is searching them and for what purpose.

Seeking cooperation from the person being searched is also good working practice. Even asking questions such as “is it OK if I check your bag for illegal items?” is an example of cooperation. If the patron is willing, it is possible to have them assist in the search in other small ways as well. This makes the process easier for all involved.

It may also help to ask the patron if they are knowingly carrying anything that might be dangerous or misconstrued as being dangerous (for example, a diabetic may be carrying an insulin injection and could be nervous about this).

It pays also to be aware of the terms of the Equality Act 2010, which essentially defines different types of discrimination in legal terms.

We operate under the assumption that nobody who reads our site would actively discriminate against other people. This is, after all, a site intended for security professionals who take pride in their work. However, it is certainly possible to unknowingly discriminate against a customer, even if no intention existed to do so.

While cases such as these tend to reflect society’s attitudes more than they do those of the individuals involved, it is nevertheless an unwanted outcome and could lead to serious difficulties for supervisor and venue alike. Being aware of what does and does not constitute discrimination in the eyes of the law can help if a patron accuses a door supervisor of discriminating against them (as does happen from time-to-time), as well as improving the supervisor’s ability to discharge their duties in a fair and impartial manner.  

Keeping Yourself Safe

All door supervisors have the right and the duty to protect themselves, both physically and legally.

Wearing protective clothing, such as a stab vest, can be greatly beneficial, both in terms of practical functionality as well as peace of mind. Following good standards and practices (see above) will definitely help from a legal standpoint, as will gathering photographic and video evidence of any transgressions. It is also good to ensure that door supervisors are never working alone.

When conducting a search, the door supervisor should ensure that the patron’s hands are fully visible at all times. Should the patron’s hands cease to be visible, the door supervisor should politely ask them to keep their hands in plain sight.

The door supervisor may ask the patron if they have anything in their possession that potentially violates the standards of the venue. If they have an item that they are concerned about, the patron should be instructed to point to its location upon their person. At this juncture, the door supervisor may lightly pat the area indicated (in order to ascertain if this is, in fact the case), after which they should carefully remove and examine the item.

If the offending item is illegal, it must be confiscatedSIA LICENCE HUBSIA LICENCE HUB | An Online Resource for SIA Licence, Training & Careers Advice immediately. Following this, it would be at the discretion of either the supervisor themselves, their manager or somebody who represents the venue’s owners as to whether or not the person should be arrested.

If the item is not illegal, but violates the rules of the venue, the door supervisor may keep it in storage for the patron by taking down some personal details from the patron and writing them on a piece of paper, which should then be kept with the item so that the patron may retrieve it upon exiting the venue. Not every venue provides this service, however, so it is important to learn whether or not this is an option before offering it to any patrons.

If the item is not illegal, but the venue’s rules don’t allow it to be taken inside and storage is not an option (either because the venue doesn’t provide that service or because the patron refuses to give it up), then that patron must be turned away. This should be done in as polite and courteous a manner as possible.

It is also very important for door supervisors to keep their cool at all times. Patrons will sometimes become abusive, even violent, when refusing a search or being denied entry. In such cases, the law allows security officers in all areas to defend themselves from harm. However, the overall goal is to avoid such incidents from ever reaching that point.

Firm, repeated language, together with a lack of willingness to engage in negotiation or debate of any kind, will often see a potentially aggressive patron simply give up and leave of their own volition. If the patron is allowed to discuss the issue at any length, they may feel that they are making headway and that they will be allowed to stay if they can convince the door supervisor of their case. This can lead to frustration when they are still asked to leave after making what they no doubt feel is a strong case to stay. In cases like this, it’s best not to engage, but simply to eject.

Staying safe, both physically and legally, is of vital importance to door supervisors, patrons and venues alike. Searches, while not always popular, are an important part of that.

Searches offer safety, and safety sometimes means searches. It’s just that simple.