The Arrest Stage of a Criminal Case

First Step Into the Criminal Justice System

Rear View of a Criminal Wearing Handcuffs
Flying Colours Ltd / Getty Images

The first step in your journey through the criminal justice system is your being arrested.

How Do You Know When You Have Been Arrested?

A criminal arrest takes place when you have been taken into police custody and are no longer free to leave, either by being physically restrained, or by a show of authority.

An arrest can take place simply when a police officer tells you that you are under arrest. You do not have to be handcuffed or otherwise physically restrained in order for you to legally be under arrest.

Whether you are handcuffed or not, you are legally under arrest at the moment that you are no longer free to walk away.

The Difference Between Being Arrested and Being Detained

Sometimes there is no question as to whether or not a person is under arrest. For example, if a police officer observes you breaking into a vending machine and he handcuffs you and places you in a patrol car, and says, "You are under arrest," then you can safely assume that you are under arrest. You have been physically restrained and you are unable to leave.

Other times the situation may not be as clear. For example, if the police officer instructs you to wait in the back seat of his patrol car, but you are not handcuffed nor forced into the car, then at that moment you are likely being detained rather than arrested.

The officer must decide in a relatively short period of time, usually around 30 minutes, if he is arresting you or he should release you.

Reasons for Which You Can Be Arrested

Generally, there are three legal circumstances under which a police officer can place you under arrest:

Caught in the Act

If a police officer actually sees you committing a crime, he can arrest you. For example, if a policeman sees you running down the street, then grabbing the purse off of a woman's shoulder and she screams, then you have been caught in the act of committing a crime and he can arrest you.

Probable Cause

A police officer can arrest you if he has probable cause that you have committed a crime or are about to commit a crime. To have probable cause, the police officer must have specific facts or circumstances that lead him to believe you have committed a crime. You cannot be arrested based on a hunch or because you "look suspicious."

For example, if a police officer receives a report that a convenience store has been robbed and then sees you running away from the store with a gun in your hand, he has probable cause to suspect that you robbed the store and he can arrest you.

If a police officer has reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur, and he believes that a person may have information about the crime, he can detain the person for a short amount of time. 

Obtaining an Arrest Warrant

You can be arrested if a judge or magistrate issues an arrest warrant. Usually, an arrest warrant is issued after a police officer provides the judge probable cause for your arrest, based on his own observations or information obtained from a confidential informant.

If an informant tells a police officer that he went to your house and purchased drugs from you, the policeman can go to a judge and request an arrest warrant by describing the crimes being committed, the person suspected of the crimes and the location of the suspect.

Arrest warrants can also be issued if you fail to show up for a court date, miss appointments with your probation or parole officer, fail to pay a fine or restitution or otherwise violate your probation or parole.

Search Warrants Can Prompt Arrest

Search warrants are issued by judges in the same manner as arrest warrants, based on probable cause provided by law enforcement officers. If a search warrant is served on your home or place of business and contraband is found, you can then be placed under arrest because the police have personally witnessed you being in possession of the contraband.

Return to: Stages of a Criminal Case