Being stopped by the police can be an extremely frightening experience. The police have a lot of power to interfere with your liberty and potentially worse. That power is limited by the U.S. Constitution, however, and it’s important that you understand your constitutional rights when you are stopped by the police.
One point you should understand is the difference between being detained and being arrested.
Detaining a person
Police can speak to members of the public about all sorts of things, but that doesn’t mean that the person has to answer their questions, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is not free to leave.
However, police do have the right to detain a person for a brief amount of time for investigatory reasons. This act is known as detaining a person. It does not have all the formal requirements of arrest, but the police power to detain people exists only under certain circumstances.
As noted above, the police can detain a person for only a limited time. The exact amount of time may depend on the exact circumstances, but typically this means less than one hour.
Further, police can detain a person in a public place only if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person was involved in a crime.
If you have been detained, you are not free to leave. However, you do have the right to remain silent. You do not have to answer a police officer’s questions.
Arresting a person
An arrest is a more formal process of putting a person under police custody. Generally, police can only arrest a person if they have witnessed the person commit a crime, if they have a warrant for the person’s arrest or if they have probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime.
The term “probable cause” refers to a legal standard that is higher than “reasonable suspicion.” Essentially, it means the officer has reason to believe it’s more likely than not that the suspect committed the crime in question.
When you have been arrested by the police, they must inform you that you are being arrested and identify the crime in question. At some point before questioning you, they must also give you a Miranda warning. This term refers to the requirement that police officers inform you of your constitutional protections, including the right to remain silent. It is wise to exercise this right, saying only that you wish to speak to a lawyer.