I guess more specifically, when cops order you to sit down in an interrogation room (before you have been charged or arrested), is this a 'lawful order'?

I am asking because of the way this is often shown on shows like Law and Order. It seems like this is just so the cops can bully the suspect and be able to dominate them, and so is there a legal basis allowing them to do that?

  • Are you sure those people haven't been arrested? If you're not arrested or otherwise lawfully detained you can ignore the cops and walk out the door.
    – Patrick87
    Jun 5, 2017 at 23:13
  • 3
    Are you asking whether they can legally prevent you from standing up? Are you asking whether they can require you to remain in the room?
    – phoog
    Jun 6, 2017 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


If the police order you to sit in an interrogation room and you are not permitted to leave, by definition, you have been arrested. Detaining someone against their will for longer than necessary to answer a few questions on the spot (which is a lesser imposition on your freedom called a "Terry stop") is what it means to be arrested. Legally, the police are only allowed to arrest you if they have probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime.

I believe that you are confusing arrested (being detained by law enforcement against your will for more than a Terry stop), with being booked, or being charged with a crime. Generally speaking people are arrested first, and then booked next, and then charged with a crime after that, although this isn't always the order in which this happens.

In much the same way, if the police observe someone committing a crime, they will first handcuff them which places them under arrest, and then book them sometime not too long later when they arrive at the police station, and then formally charge them sometime after that after a conversation with the prosecuting attorney to see if the prosecuting attorney is willing to pursue the case. Booking generally involves bringing someone to a police station, getting identifying information, taking a mug shot, taking finger prints, and depending upon what the police want to do, searching your person and inventorying your possessions prior to putting you in a jail cell in jail garb.

Usually, however, the grand jury or the prosecuting attorney (it varies by jurisdiction) does have subpoena power to compel you to provide information under oath prior to trial as a witness, following the service of a subpoena upon you a reasonable time in advance as set forth in the relevant court rules, unless you invoke your 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and are not granted immunity from prosecution based upon your testimony in exchange, or you invoke some other legal privilege against having to testify.

They can, of course, simply ask you to come to an interrogation room and answer questions, and merely imply that it is mandatory without actually saying that you must and without clarifying the situation. In that case, which is extremely common, their legal right to interrogate you flows from your own consent. If you answer their questions, your answers could provide the police with probable cause to arrest you that they didn't have when they started asking questions.

Indeed, often, when police interrogate you before booking you, they are doing so because they need your statements to establish the probable cause needed to legally arrest you. This is why criminal defense attorneys counsel people to immediate ask for a lawyer and refuse to answer any questions other than those needed to establish your identity.

You can also ask if you are under arrest and if you are free to leave (which are mutually exclusive).

If they say you are not under arrest, you are free to leave, unless you are appearing pursuant to a subpoena.

  • 1
    when one is "stopped" at the side of the road for 25 minutes while your license, registration and insurance is checked, is that an arrest? One is not free to go, yet there appears to be no crime (at least with most traffic matters).
    – mongo
    Jun 6, 2017 at 15:01
  • 3
    @mongo I think you should ask that as a separate question, because it merits a separate, in-depth answer. It's been ruled that you're not technically under arrest (And therefore need not be read your maranda rights) when stopped in your vehicle unless you've been subject to the level of restraint typically used during arrest / custody, or, as an example I've seen cited, ordered out of the vehicle and to the ground by officers, at gunpoint. Ref: lawofficer.com/archive/…
    – schizoid04
    Jun 6, 2017 at 16:20
  • 1
    @mongo schizoid04 is right. Also, the distinction between a Terry stop and an arrest is highly fact specific and there are edge cases like the one you hypothesize, in which a reasonable magistrate could go either way based upon the other facts and circumstances of the situation, which is why we need judges to help evaluate the circumstances and apply the law to the facts.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 6, 2017 at 17:00
  • My take is that this issue is complex, and rather than formulate a comprehensive question, which effectively addresses it, it would be easier to piggy back a concept to someone else's question. Forgive me. And forgive me for noticing that the traffic matter was not a crime, which is what got me going in the first place, because I didn't know that we arrested people for civil matters. Ok, I have soapboxed, and I will take my correction and see if I can formulate a simple question along these lines. Thanks.
    – mongo
    Jun 6, 2017 at 17:57
  • @mongo Some traffic matters are crimes, some are not. The line between the two varies quite a bit from state to state.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 6, 2017 at 17:58

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