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The Myth of Investigative Detention vs. Arrest

Common misunderstandings in the police community about the law are a result of many factors, not least of which is inconsistency among our own trainers, as well as prosecutors and judges. It is important, though, for supervisors and managers to accurately distinguish between common misunderstandings and correct law so that they apply correct standards in their assessments of officers.

Officers need to make the same distinction so they are able to properly apply the law. Naturally, our training should reflect the law as it is—not as it might be pervasively misunderstood. Each agency should decide and announce its philosophy toward prosecutorial and judicial agendas that may be different, often more restrictive of police behavior, than the law actually is.

Many officers have been taught that an arrest occurs whenever law enforcement creates a situation in which a subject is “not free to leave.” If that was a correct definition, every investigative detention, i.e., “Terry stop,” would be an arrest. Some officers have been taught that if they use any force whatsoever to restrain someone, they have arrested that person. If this statement was true, then an officer could not even grab someone’s arm during a “Terry stop” to prevent him from walking away.

In fact, in terms of federal constitutional law, neither of these teachings is a correct definition of arrest. However, these explanations correctly define a “seizure” of a person. A seizure of a person occurs whenever force is used or a person submits to a show of authority by police. Seizures of persons come in two forms: investigative detentions, AKA “Terry stops,” which require reasonable suspicion, and arrests, which require probable cause.

Arrest as a Federal Constitutional Concept

What, then, is a correct definition of arrest, for purposes of federal Constitutional law? An arrest is a seizure of a person in which the subject is 1) required to go elsewhere with police, or 2) deprived of his freedom of movement for more than a brief period of time, or 3) subjected to more force than is reasonably part of an investigative detention.

So, if an officer has said or done things that would cause a reasonable person to believe that he was not free to leave or to decline the contact with the police and either the subject is required to leave and go elsewhere with police or a detention persists for more than a short while, or more force is used than is reasonable to simply restrain someone, then that person has been arrested. Even if an officer does not intend to arrest the subject, the courts will likely determine that the interaction is in fact an arrest.

This month’s article focuses on the “requirement to go elsewhere” or involuntary movement aspect of “arrest.” A future article will address the question of how long a person can be deprived of his freedom of movement as part of a “Terry stop.” That is, without the seizure becoming an arrest in the Constitutional sense.

As to the force issue, appeals courts generally agree that officers may use reasonable (non-deadly) force to effect and safely maintain an investigative detention. And, as a practical matter, if an officer is having to use more than absolutely minimal force in an investigative detention, the subject is almost always doing something at that point for which there would be probable cause to arrest him. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Accidental Arrests

Reasonable suspicion allows the police to conduct an investigative detention or “Terry stop,” but officers must use great care to ensure that the investigative detention does not accidentally evolve into an arrest without the requisite probable cause.

One of the first United States Supreme Court cases to deal with this issue was Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 2000 (1979), where the defendant confessed to a robbery-homicide after being “picked up for questioning” and taken to police facilities. The Supreme Court found that Dunaway’s confession was inadmissible because, when he was required to leave his home and go to the police facilities, he was in essence “arrested” without probable cause.

There is simply no provision in the law that permits police to “pick someone up for questioning” in the absence of probable cause. If the police transport a person “for questioning” (without the person’s voluntary consent), the courts will almost always deem that transaction to be an arrest, which of course requires probable cause.

In Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983), the court again dealt with involuntary movement of a suspect during an investigative detention. Royer was detained in an airport concourse based on reasonable suspicion (but not probable cause) that he was a drug courier. The court found that the detention “matured” into an illegal arrest when he was required to go with police from the public concourse to a small “police dominated” room off the concourse. Importantly, the court commented that articulated safety and security reasons might sometimes cause an exception to their emerging rule.

Noted Constitutional scholar Professor LaFave describes this minor exception as follows: “…it seems clear that some movement of the suspect in the general vicinity of the stop is permissible without converting what would otherwise be characterized as a temporary seizure into an arrest.” (Search and Seizure treatise, Third Edition, Volume 3, pp. 75-76.)

In Hayes v. Florida, 470 U.S. 811 (1985), police (without probable cause to arrest) required the defendant to leave his home and go to police facilities for fingerprinting. The court cautioned that “the line is crossed when police, without probable cause or a warrant…remove a person from his home or other place he is entitled to be and transport him to the police station where he is detained, although briefly, for investigative purposes.” The line the court refers to is the legal line between investigative detention and arrest.

More recently in Kaupp v.Texas, 123 S.Ct.1843 (2003) the police, armed with reasonable suspicion but not probable cause to arrest, went at 3 a.m. to the home of a 17-year-old murder suspect, woke him, and told him “we have to talk.” He responded “OK” and was transported to police facilities and interrogated. His resulting confession was found to be the product of an illegal arrest.

The defendant’s response of “OK” to the officer’s “we have to talk” did not make the contact consensual. Rather, according to the court, the defendant submitted to the officer’s “show of authority.” Officers may transport suspects with their consent, but the consent must be voluntary, that is, the suspect must be spoken to in a manner that clearly suggests the option to decline.

While Supreme Court rulings have dealt exclusively with situations in which a person was required to leave his home and accompany police to law enforcement facilities, even requiring someone to leave one public area and go with police to another public area will convert an investigative detention into an arrest, requiring probable cause.

An officer may detain a person based solely on reasonable suspicion for a limited time to conduct a brief investigation. However, if during the detention the suspect is moved without his voluntary consent from one location to another, the detention likely will be deemed an arrest requiring probable cause. The exception to this rule seems to be short movement within one environment for articulable safety and security reasons.

Consequently, when officers lack probable cause to arrest, they should not say or do things that would cause a reasonable person to feel that he is being required to leave where they are and to go elsewhere with the police. Asking someone if they would be willing, on a voluntary basis, to go elsewhere with the officer is always permitted, as long as it is done non-coercively.

When police officer tells someone, “You’re going to have to come with me,” or “You’re going to need to come with me,” and the subject says “OK” and goes with the officer, the resulting transaction will almost surely be viewed by reviewing courts as an arrest in the Constitutional sense, which of course requires pre-existing probable cause.

Randy Means is a partner in the Charlotte, NC law firm of Thomas and Means, LLP, and specializes entirely in police operations and administration. He is the primary legal instructor for the IACP. He can be reached at In her 20-year career, Pam McDonald has worked as a patrol officer, a felony investigator, a felony prosecutor, and a college professor specializing in police issues. She is currently assisting Randy Means. She can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2009

Rating : 9.9

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Investigative Detention Myth

Posted on : Feb 26 at 6:10 AM By Ed

I see no such thing in law as "investigative detention". Detaining to investigate if there is a crime gets the cart in front of the horse. In Terry V Ohio the investigation of whether a crime has been committed, is presently being committed or is about to be committed must be completed to the point where an officer can articulate what that crime is; only then is there legal authority to deprive a citizen of their right to travel "move about" freely.
If there is a crime that has or is being committed then there is legal authority to arrest for that crime. If a crime is about to be committed then there is criminal intent "plotting to commit a crime" and yes one can be arrested for that. So where is there a need for an investigative detention, unless?
Investigative detentions are used as a legal sounding excuse to keep a person in custody so the officer can fish for the crime they are really looking for but don't quite have yet. I have heard this called the Russian method of policing, we have the person so lets keep them here until we find a crime for them. That may work in Russia but in the US we are supposed to have rights and it is supposed to be the job of government and it's agents to secure those rights.

Incorrect Terry Stop Explanation

Posted on : Jul 14 at 2:52 PM By Jim Dick

Your explanation of Terry vs. Ohio is inacurate. Investigative detention, absent an actual crime, is basis for litigatable relief. Reasonable suspicion of a CRIME must be articulatable. A detention based purely on suspicion absent a crime is a direct violation of Terry v Ohio.

on the article

Posted on : Jul 2 at 5:23 AM By slydog

only congress has any authority to make law when a judge does it he is stepping outside of his constitutional authority and ceases to represent the government.

"The United States is entirely a creature of the Constitution. Its power and authority have no other source. It can only act in accordance with all the limitations imposed by the Constitution." Reid v Covert 354 US l, 1957.

"Anyone entering into an arrangement with the government takes the risk of having accurately ascertained that he who purports to act for the government stays within the bounds of his authority, even though the agent himself may be unaware of limitations upon his authority." The United States Supreme Court, Federal Crop Ins. Corp, v. Merrill, 332 US 380-388 L1947)

"The general rule is that an unconstitutional statute, though having the form and name of law, is in reality no law, but is wholly void and ineffective for any purpose, since its unconstitutionality dates from the time of its enactment... In legal contemplation, it is as inoperative as if it had never been passed... Since an unconstitutional law is void, the general principles follow that it imposes no duties, confers no right, creates no office, bestows no power or authority on anyone, affords no protection and justifies no acts performed under it... A void act cannot be legally consistent with a valid one. An unconstitutional law cannot operate to supersede any existing law. Indeed insofar as a statute runs counter to the fundamental law of the land, (the Constitution JTM) it is superseded thereby. No one is bound to obey an unconstitutional law and no courts are bound to enforce it." Bonnett v. Vallier, 116 N.W. 885, 136 Wis. 193 (1908); NORTON v. SHELBY COUNTY, 118 U.S. 425 (1886). See also Bonnett v Vallier, 136 Wis 193, 200; 116 NW 885, 887 (1908); State ex rel Ballard v Goodland, 159 Wis 393, 395; 150 NW 488, 489 (1915); State ex rel Kleist v Donald, 164 Wis 545, 552-553; 160 NW 1067, 1070 (1917); State ex rel Martin v Zimmerman, 233 Wis 16, 21; 288 NW 454, 457 (1939); State ex rel Commissioners of Public Lands v Anderson, 56 Wis 2d 666, 672; 203 NW2d 84, 87 (1973); and Butzlaffer v Van Der Geest & Sons, Inc, Wis, 115 Wis 2d 539; 340 NW2d 742, 744-745 (1983).

"State officers may be held personally liable for damages based upon actions taken in their official capacities." Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21 (1991).

Cooper v. Aaron, By Chief Justice Earl Warren
No state, legislator, executive or judicial officer can "War" against (or test the limitations of) the Constitution without violating their undertaking to support it (Breach of Oath/Contract, Treason??). The Constitution created a government dedicated to equal justice under law. The Fourteenth Amendment embodied and emphasized that State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Our constitutional ideal of equal justice under law is thus made a living truth. (Book, Our Nation's Archive © 1999 pg 701)

AM14.3/HO, IR No person shall hold office if he rebels against or violates the U.S. Constitution (treason).

AM14.3/RD Congress shall impeach anyone who rebels against or violates the U.S. Constitution.

" An officer who acts in violation of the constitution ceases to represent the government". Brookfield Const. Co. v. Stewart, 284 F. Supp.94.

The Oath of office is a quid pro quo contract cf [U.S. Const. Art. 6, Clauses 2 and 3, Davis Vs. Lawyers Surety Corporation., 459 S.W. 2nd. 655, 657., Tex. Civ. App.] in which clerks, officials, or officers of the government pledge to perform (Support and uphold the United States and state Constitutions) in return for substance (wages, perks, benefits). Proponents are subjected to the penalties and remedies for Breach of Contract, Conspiracy cf [Title 18 U.S.C., Sections 241, 242]. Treason under the Constitution at Article 3, Section 3., and Intrinsic Fraud cf [Auerbach v Samuels, 10 Utah 2nd. 152, 349 P. 2nd. 1112,1114. Alleghany Corp v Kirby., D.C.N.Y. 218 F. Supp. 164, 183., and Keeton Packing Co. v State., 437 S.W. 20, 28]. Refusing to live by their oath places them in direct violation of their oath, in every case. Violating their oath is not just cause for immediate dismissal and removal from office, it is a federal crime. Federal law regulating oath of office by government officials is divided into four parts along with an executive order which further defines the law for purposes of enforcement. 5 U.S.C. 3331, provides the text of the actual oath of office members of Congress are required to take before assuming office. 5 U.S.C. 3333 requires members of Congress sign an affidavit that they have taken the oath of office required by 5 U.S.C. 3331 and have not or will not violate that oath of office during their tenure of office as defined by the third part of the law, 5 U.S.C. 7311 which explicitly makes it a federal criminal offense (and a violation of oath of office) for anyone employed in the United States Government (including members of Congress) to “advocate the overthrow of our constitutional form of government”

The governments of the world are the real terrorist in most cases. most are nothing but criminals pretending to still have some authority when by law they lost any claim to that authority when they violated their oath of office and became criminals. So in fact they are all impostors acting like officials. Nothing more than a fancy version of the bloods and the crypts, guess we could say the blues and the suits. The cream of the crop rises to the top and it is no different with criminals. Where do you think those who never go to jail for their crimes ends up. Like the Bush's and Clinton's and Obama's All criminals and all at the top. And they offer no choice but more criminals to take their place. When will people learn and bind our officials to the constitution and to the law.

We DO NOT have to wait to "vote" someone out of office simply arrest them and replace them.

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:320

"The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first." ~Thomas Jefferson~

@Ray on Jeff Nations Comment

Posted on : Feb 3 at 12:35 PM By Eddie Craig

On what facts and evidence are you basing the allegation that Jeff's statement constitutes any sort of "sovereign citizen process" or is somehow NOT the real world that Texans live in?

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in 2008 in the case of Azeez v. State that Sec. 543.001, Texas Transportation Code, clearly delineates a warrantless custodial arrest of an individual, as the statutory language plainly states such.

"... the arresting officer may release the person arrested from custody...".

Therefore, it is no longer a legally debatable question of whether or not an officer intended to make an arrest for a traffic stop, it is simply a fact that it is precisely what he DOES. Thus making it an issue of individual rights violations under both the 4th and 5th Amendments as well as the Texas Bill of Rights itself.

However, there is an even more immediate and far-reaching problem associated with such stops and arrests in Texas, but that is something that goes beyond what you are obviously willing to consider, and, therefore, making highly unlikely that you would even attempt to understand, so I won't get into it here. It is enough to point out that Jeff is completely correct in this instance in that, while in Texas, you are not able to receive the same answer to both questions as to whether or not you are "under arrest" or if you are "free to go."


Posted on : Apr 16 at 7:51 AM By Ray

Jeff...just because that is the world you want to live in does not make that factual. The 4th deals with seizures, not arrests. There are types of seizures, one is an investigative detention and another is a custodial arrest. This Sovereign Citizen process sounds may sound good to the layman, it will never stand the real world test because there is no legal foundation.


Posted on : Mar 5 at 8:18 AM By Jeff Nation

Not sure how the transportation code is where you're from, but I would assume it's fairly comparable in all states. The courts have said that these officers can stop you for the purpose of an "investigative detention" (but I don't see that anywhere in the 4th amendment, but thats how they want to do it), so going by the courts declaration, we come to the point of asking "Am I under arrest?" to give the officer an opportunity to tell you that you are. Texas law is very clear, Chapter 543 of the Transportation Code calls these traffic stops a "warrantless arrest" and that the officer may only release the person from custody if the person will sign a "promise to appear" on the citation. So in the event you are stopped by police and you ask "Am I under arrest?", there is no question that the officer is lying when he tells you that you aren't, and most know they are lying.

In order to establish this fact you must proceed forward to the second question which is, "AM I FREE TO GO?" The officer should never be able to give you the same answer to both questions because they are a complete contradiction. You can't be not under arrest and also not free to go. So the reason you want to follow through with this question is establish on the record that you were in fact in a custodial arrest...the courts have ruled that when a reasonable individual feels that he is not able to leave the scene of his own volition, that constitutes a custodial arrest.


Posted on : Oct 16 at 10:13 AM By EJ

What about having a student leave a classroom or other common area and move to an administrative office?

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