The stakeout is a big part of any decent cop film. Two lonely cops sitting in their car for hours at a time, eating junk food and watching nothing happen at a shady address across the street. Is it this simple though in real life?
The short answer is yes. And no.
Whilst a decent stakeout will almost certainly involve doughnuts and boredom, it will also involve getting the proper legal authorisation to be ‘stakeouting’ in the first place.
In England the capability for public bodies to carry out surveillance is covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, also known by time pressed, acronym fond police officers as ‘RIPA’. This Act tells public organisations such as the police, councils and even, when he’s in the UK, James Bond, what they can and can’t do when it comes to covert investigations and the collection of private information.
The Act is important as without there being proper legislation and scrutiny in place, covert surveillance could be seen as in infringement on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which grants everyone the right to ‘respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’.
Article 8 is one of the Convention’s ‘qualified‘ rights meaning that in the right circumstances, surveillance can be carried out if it is necessary, done so legally and in the pursuit of a legitimate aim.
The Act defines ‘covert‘ in relation to steps having been taken to ensure the subject is unaware that surveillance is taking place. ‘Surveillance‘ means monitoring, observing or listening to people, their movements, activities and includes making recordings of this information.
Directed surveillance means employing techniques during the course of an investigation that are likely to result in the obtaining of private information about a person. Information collected as a result of day to day activities or in response to something that has happened there and then (hiding behind a lamp post to observe suspicious activity, for example) would not qualify as ‘directed’ for the purposes of the Act.
Intrusive surveillance is different to the above as it involves the collection of information taking place inside a residential premises or private vehicle, be it by placing a bug or having an officer stood in the corner of a room disguised as a pot plant. Because it involves intentionally invading a place in which a person could reasonably expect privacy, intrusive surveillance is, to understate, a big deal.
Who can authorise us then to cut eye holes in a newspaper and sit outside someone’s house? Well, for directed surveillance we need to have obtained the authorisation of a Superintendent.
To launch intrusive surveillance though, we need to go to the head honcho himself – the Chief Constable. Even with the green light from the Chief though, the authorisation also needs the approval of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners before it can go ahead. In addition to this, intrusive surveillance will only be authorised in relation to the investigation of the most serious crime, again ensuring that it is proportionate and so does not breach Human Rights law.
A stakeout isn’t simply a matter of parking up outside someone’s house and nor should it be. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is there to ensure that police powers are set out clearly and used properly. It doesn’t stop us spending long nights guzzling doughnuts and talking about the ball game, it just means that we’re there for the right reasons.