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When Can a Police Officer Arrest or Detain You?

November 29, 2020

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Arrests and detentions are considered “seizures” under the law. Traditionally, courts held that any seizure required probable cause to believe that the person being seized had committed a crime. However, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court created an exception to the probable cause rule. It held that the police could temporarily detain suspects as long as they had reasonable suspicion (a lower standard than probable cause) to believe the person being detained was involved in criminal conduct. This article will discuss the difference between arrests and detentions, and what is required for each type of seizure. It will answer the question: when can a police officer arrest or detain you?

The police can arrest or detain you only if they meet constitutionally mandated standards. These standards are based on the specific circumstances of each case. Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are the two key standards that we’ll now explore in much greater detail.

When Can An Officer Arrest Someone?

An arrest involves taking a suspect into police custody, where the suspect is not free to leave.  An arrest requires probable cause. Probable cause exists when facts and circumstances within the police officer’s knowledge would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect is involved in criminal activity.

What is Probable Cause?

In order to arrest a suspect, a police officer must have probable cause. Probable cause is established when a reasonable officer, knowing what the arresting officer knows, would believe that the suspect was involved in criminal activity.

Probable cause must be based on specific facts and circumstances, rather than a hunch or suspicion. It requires more than a hunch or a suspicion, but less than it takes to convict a defendant in court. An officer must be able to articulate specific facts that led him to believe the suspect had committed or was committing a crime.

Hearsay statements can establish Probable Cause.

Officers can rely on hearsay to establish probable cause. In other words, officers can to rely on what a third person told them. So if someone flags down an officer, points to you, and tells the officer you stole her purse, that may be sufficient to establish probable cause to arrest you.

But the statement must still be reasonable. If a woman flags down an officer, points at you, and says that you stole her purse, and also that you shot President Kennedy, that would make her identification less reasonable. It would likely undermine any probable cause.

The statement must also be specific. If the victim tells the officer only that a Black male stole her purse, the officer cannot arrest you simply because you are a Black male. That is not a reasonable basis to establish probable cause.

Probable Cause does not equal guilt.

The probable cause standard must be more than suspicion and more than a hunch, but can be less than the legal standard to convict – by which a judge or a jury must be convinced of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So the fact that a criminal defendant was later acquitted does not necessarily mean that his arrest lacked probable cause.

In other words, an officer may have probable cause to arrest even if the suspect turns out to be innocent, or is found not guilty after a trial. But it is always worth speaking to a qualified civil rights attorney to see if you have a false arrest case.

Whether an officer has reasonable suspicion or probable cause determines their power to detain or arrest you. But what does it mean to be “detained?” And how is detention different from arrest?

Investigative Detention

Under certain circumstances, police officers can temporarily detain a suspect while the officer conducts a brief investigation to determine if the suspect is involved in criminal activity.

During the investigative detention, the suspect is not free to leave, may be handcuffed for officer safety, and may be frisked (briefly searched) for weapons. This is often referred to as a “Terry stop,” named for the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, that first approved the concept of investigatory detentions. 

How Long Can Investigative Detentions Last?

An investigative detention may last anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour.

There is no absolute time limit for a detention. But it “must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop…” United States v. Segoviano (N.D. Ill. 2019). In other words, the duration of a detention must be reasonably related to the officers’ investigation. Rarely are detentions more than an hour.

When Can an Officer Detain Someone?

In order to justify a detention, an officer must be able to articulate specific facts that lead to a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is involved in criminal activity.

A detention is not an arrest, and requires less evidence than the probable cause standard for an arrest.

However, a detention can lead to an arrest if the officer finds sufficient evidence during a detention to provide probable cause to make an arrest.

While detained, the police officer might find some other evidence giving him or her probable cause to arrest you. Remember, this does not necessarily mean that you are guilty – it simply means that the officer thinks that there is enough cause to arrest you.

Reasonable suspicion is not a sufficient basis to arrest someone. An officer must have probable cause to make an arrest.

Everyone has a constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. An arrest without probable cause is a violation of that right.

A citizen who was detained by police without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may be able to bring a civil lawsuit for unlawful detention. If you believe you may have been unlawfully detained, you should contact an attorney to check your options.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

In order to briefly detain a citizen, an officer must have Reasonable Suspicion that the person being detained has been involved in criminal conduct.

The Reasonable Suspicion standard requires less evidence of criminal conduct than the standard of Probable Cause. However, it must still be based on specific facts that the officer can articulate. It must be more than a hunch.

This standard, like probable cause, depends on the circumstances of each specific situation. The officer has to be able to identify specific facts justifying his or her suspicion that the suspect was involved in criminal activity.

Without those specific facts, the suspicion is not reasonable, and the person detained may have a civil claim for unlawful detention.

Conclusion – When Can an Officer Arrest or Detain You?

The police can only arrest you when they have probable cause to do so. Reasonable suspicion is enough to justify detaining you, but not to arrest you.

Whether an officer can detain or arrest you is entirely dependent on the situation. But in any case, the officer must meet constitutional standards before denying your liberty.

If you believe that you or someone you know has been the victim of an unlawful detention or a false arrest, contact Chicago civil rights attorney Jordan Marsh for a free consultation at (312) 401-5510, or at

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