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What Constitutes an Arrest Under the Fourth Amendment?

Popular ideas concerning proper police conduct and criminal prosecution, derive mainly from popular culture, including from movies and television, which may often serve to gloss over significant and complex issues associated with the prosecution of crimes and can cause confusion for a layperson, unfamiliar with criminal law and procedures. For instance, the dramatic portrayal of an arrest, the initial step in a criminal prosecution, usually envisages the following type of scenario: An officer on patrol is seen observing a purse-snatching occurring on the street and apprehending the suspect, informing him of his Miranda rights and that he is under arrest, searching him and transporting the individual to the police station for booking, charging and incarceration pending a bail hearing. However, this simple scenario can quickly become a complex legal puzzle, with the slightest alteration of the factual circumstances. Many unexpected outcomes may turn on various considerations, including the precise moment that the arrest occurred; when the suspect was searched and “seized”; what was the officer’s intent during the arrest, among many other concerns. These considerations are critically important under Fourth Amendment principles, because unlawful arrests or seizures can lead to the exclusion of evidence obtained by police, during the arrest or seizure, which prevents the admissibility of such evidence in the prosecution’s case, potentially resulting in the ultimate dismissal of the case.

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from “unreasonable searches and seizures” conducted by law enforcement. This includes seizure of one’s person, such as an arrest. The Fourth Amendment prohibits arrest or detention without a warrant or probable cause. A clear interpretation of the term “arrest” is critical because, when a valid arrest is made, the right to search incident to that arrest is automatic. Discerning the precise meaning of this term is further important because, if an arrest is made without probable cause, the seizure of evidence, incident to such arrest may be unlawful.

An arrest generally requires taking a suspect into custody, against that person’s will, in order to prosecute or to question the individual regarding potential criminal activity. It involves either the use of physical force, or the suspect’s submission to an officer’s demonstration of force. In essence, the arrestee must not be free to leave.

Common ideas and notions of arrest involve physical restraint, including the use of handcuffs on the suspect and placing him in the patrol car. However, the law recognizes circumstances in which an arrest may occur without the use of physical restraint, which may have ramifications for the prosecution of the case, as at the point of arrest, certain procedural requirements are triggered. In determining whether an individual has been arrested, courts apply the “reasonable man” standard. This analysis requires an inquiry as to whether a reasonable person, in the shoes of the suspect, would have believed that he or she was not free to leave. For instance, police may stop an individual in a public place and ask questions of her, such as her observations regarding whether she witnessed any unusual or suspicious activity. Unless the officer restrains her or indicates that she is not free to leave, no arrest has occurred.

Police can arrest a suspect if they have a warrant issued by a judge. However, in many circumstances, arrests are made without the issuance of a warrant. A warrantless arrest requires the existence of “probable cause” and an urgent or “exigent” situation, requiring prompt action to prevent physical harm, the escape of a suspect, or the destruction of evidence, for example.

Probable cause is a reasonable belief by the police officer in the guilt of the suspect, based on the facts and information prior to the arrest. For instance, a warrantless arrest may be legitimate in situations where the police officer has a reasonable belief that the suspect has either committed a crime or is about to commit a crime. The suspect who is arrested without a warrant is guaranteed the right to a judicial determination within 48 hours of the arrest.

An arrest triggers certain procedural requirements, such as the person under arrest be made aware of the right to remain silent, the right to consult with an attorney and have the attorney present during questioning, and the right to have an attorney appointed if the individual lacks the financial resources to retain one. These rights are commonly referred to as “Miranda Rights,” which must be provided by law enforcement prior to questioning the suspect by the police.

The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones determine your rights if you have been arrested for a crime. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss the specifics of your case.