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What Constitutes A Legal Arrest?

Over the past year or so, the arrest process in this country has become stigmatized, leaving many Americans pointing the finger at the justice system and those who work for it. Tensions have only thickened as new allegations and actual crimes of police brutality continue to surface. Whatever the direct cause of unrest, people are done asking—and are now demanding—answers and reform.

To alleviate that mounting confusion and skepticism regarding the criminal justice system, we would like to explain the ins and outs of the arrest process in-depth, and hopefully give you a more informed, pragmatic perspective on the justice system in the United States.

What is legally required for an officer to arrest you?

1. The officer has “probable cause.”

Probable cause is the grey area between suspicion and complete certainty. In other words, a police officer must be able to objectively point to a situation that prompted him or her to apprehend a suspect. He/she cannot arrest you on a mere hunch. You’ll notice the lack of a concrete definition—that’s because there isn’t one. The existence of probable cause is determined by a judge. Nevertheless, probable cause is the foundation of a lawful arrest.

Example: An officer pulls you over for speeding and proceeds to search your car once you consent. Say he finds drug paraphernalia and baggies filled with marijuana. The officer would then have probable cause to arrest you.

2. The officer has personally observed the crime.

If an officer witnesses a crime, he/she has legal authority to arrest the perpetrator.

3. The officer has an arrest warrant.

If an officer has a warrant for your arrest issued by a judge, he/she has legal authority to take you into custody. Given that, there are many factors for a judge to consider when signing or rejecting a warrant request, but for our purposes here, know that the existence of a warrant for your arrest empowers the officer to apprehend you.

The Arrest Procedure

Now that we’ve covered what is required by law to initiate an arrest, let’s examine the procedural requirements officers must follow when carrying out the arrest.

When are you under arrest?

You are considered to be under arrest when you reasonably believe that you are not free to leave. You do not have to be in handcuffs to be considered under arrest by law.

Where do Miranda Rights come in?

Actually, an officer is not legally required to read you your Miranda Rights at the time of arrest. However, Miranda Rights are required before interrogating a suspect, which is why many officers read you your rights immediately after apprehension to be thorough. You can read the 5th and 6th amendments for more information about Miranda Rights.

Will I know my charges?

A third common requirement of a lawful arrest is for an officer to inform you of why you are being taken into custody. However, depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances of the arrest, an officer may not have to tell you what you’ve been charged with. In North Carolina, statute GS_15A-401(c)(1)c asserts that an officer must, “[a]s promptly as is reasonable under the circumstances, inform the arrested person of the cause of the arrest, unless the cause appears to be evident.”

What now?

That was a lot of information to take in, but you now have an above-average understanding of what constitutes a legal arrest. And you can apply this newfound comprehension to the current sentiments throughout the country, and construct a conducive, thoughtful perspective.

While we hope you never have to experience an arrest first-hand, it is our civic duty to understand and follow the laws that govern us. It is important to note that the information above is general, and that some states and cities have unique arrest procedures and regulations. For clarification, contact your local police department.

Need a legal defense? Manning Law will protect you.

If you’re in need of a legal defense for any charge, contact us today to let us fight for you. Also keep up-to-date and in the loop about all news and need-to-know information in criminal law through our new blog. Our expert attorneys are here for you!

Taylor Manning
The content on this page was reviewed by Manning Law Firm, PLLC partner Taylor Manning. You can learn more about Taylor's experience and expertise on his bio page.