When Does a Stop Become an Arrest?

National Police Training
April 18, 2013 — 2,495 views  
Become a Bronze Member for monthly eNewsletter, articles, and white papers.

If someone is stopped by the police, it may be that they have committed a traffic offense or are suspected of engaging in an illegal activity. It may also be that they are suspected of committing a crime and are stopped to be placed under arrest. In the former two cases, the police will generally question the person, and ask him to produce the necessary identification proof, if needed.

When can a Person be Questioned?

If the police reasonably suspect illegal activity by a person, they can make what is called a “Terry Stop”, where the suspect is stopped and temporarily detained for questioning without being arrested. Questions like the individual’s name and location, personal identification if any, and about the illegal activity are asked. The reasons for an individual being suspected may be due to the individual loitering around a public or private place, following another person, peering into vehicles and circling an area repeatedly, or simply being present at the location where the unusual event occurred.

The police may also perform a “weapons frisk” on the exterior of the suspect's clothes to find any concealed weapons, and may take away any object that can be considered as a weapon. They are not allowed to take any other object though. The police cannot search a person's vehicle or property without a warrant. The suspect has the right to decline the search, and the police may only search the vehicle or property if the person consents to it.

If the police want to further question the suspect, it leads to an arrest. A “Terry Stop” is different from an arrest. A Terry Stop is limited to the surface investigation of a particular activity considered reasonably suspicious. An arrest is made only if the police suspect the person of having a probable cause to have committed a criminal offense.

When can a Person get Arrested?

An arrest is when a person is stopped and detained for questioning purposes outside the scope of a “Terry Stop.” It is considered an arrest if a person is prevented by the police, for an extended period of time, from leaving a location by his own will. If the person is in any way restrained by the police, by being handcuffed or locked inside the backseat of a police car, it is considered an arrest.

An arrest does not have to be immediately declared by reading to the suspect his/her constitutional rights. The police are in no way obligated to do so, though they may eventually inform the suspect that he/she is under arrest. The Miranda Rights only relate to a suspect's rights during questioning under police custody. The consequence of not reading to a person, in police custody, his rights, will generally be inadmissible in court.

An arrest can be made with or without a warrant. For a misdemeanor, a warrant-less arrest can only be made if an offense was committed in the presence of the arresting police officer. For a felony, a warrant-less arrest can be made based on statements of witnesses. In any other case, a lawful arrest requires a warrant.

When an arrest is made, the police have the right to search the immediate vicinity of the arrest for evidence. This can include the suspect's car or house.

Important Rules to be Followed

As a law enforcement officer, it is necessary to know the line between an investigative “Terry Stop” and an arrest. Remember that the police may not stop a person for questioning, unless the police have seen the person being involved in reasonably suspicious activity. You may search the suspect for concealed weapons for the sake of self-defense, but may not search his vehicle or property unless consented to. You may make a warrant-less arrest if you have cause to believe that the suspect is involved in a crime, either witnessing it yourself or based on an eyewitness report, depending on the crime. In any other case, you require a warrant for the arrest.

In the event of an arrest, you may search the individual and the immediate premises of his/her arrest for evidence, but may not search outside of it. If you do, the evidence you gather will typically not be admissible in court as per the rights given to the accused by the constitution.

National Police Training