after watching the video about the recent fiasco in Mckinney Texas I was curious about whether any of the teens that the officer pulled over had the legal right to just walk away.

Under what scenario is a police officer allowed to detain you? Do they need a reason to believe that you committed a crime, or can they just detain you without any reason at all?

If you need a state, use Texas, if you need a city, use McKinney. Please make it clear under what scope the laws actually reside.

  • 6
    You mean legally detained, I assume? Because practically the police can detain you whenever they want. And you may often be under the impression you're being detained even though you're not: To be sure you have to ask them, "Am I being detained?" or, "Am I free to go?"
    – feetwet
    Jun 10, 2015 at 16:18
  • 1
    In the case in question the police were called in by an agent of the property owner (a security guard) to deal with trespassers. In that situation the police can not only detain, but arrest anyone who appears to be trespassing.
    – Cicero
    Jan 7, 2018 at 22:38

2 Answers 2


Brief detentions and reasonable suspicion

You can be briefly detained by police if they have reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

What reasonable suspicion "means" can only be fully understood by reference to subsequent case law (which I will expand this answer to do), but as a basis, the court said in Terry that:

the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion

This standard has been reiterated as recently as in Heien v. North Carolina 574 U. S. ____ (2014), where they say "All parties agree that to justify this type of seizure [a traffic stop, in the case of Heien], officers need only reasonable suspicion — that is, a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law" (internal quotation marks omitted).

The reasonable suspicion standard was also used recently in Navarette v. California 572 U. S. ____ (2014). They reiterated that reasonable suspicion is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability, quoting Alabama v. White, 496 U. S. 325, 330 (1990). A mere "hunch" does not create reasonable suspicion, but the level of suspicion required by the reasonable suspicion standard is "obviously less than is necessary for probable cause".

Arrests and probable cause

To be arrested, police require probable cause. Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160 (1949)

In more detail, probable cause exists (from Brinegar v. U.S.):

where the facts and circumstances within the officers' knowledge, and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a belief by a man of reasonable caution that a crime is being committed


The rule of probable cause is a practical, nontechnical conception affording the best compromise that has been found for accommodating these often opposing interests. Requiring more would unduly hamper law enforcement. To allow less would be to leave law-abiding citizens at the mercy of the officers' whim or caprice.

As in the case of reasonable suspicion, the probable cause analysis is case-by-case and fact-intensive, so to understand the contours of probable cause will require reference to much subsequent case law.

In Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964) the question before the court was entirely "whether or not the record in the case before us can support a finding of probable cause for the petitioner's arrest". In that case, it turned out that the information they had received about the arrestee was not sufficient for probable cause, but regardless, the test the court applied was whether the police had probable cause for the arrest.


While I am confident in the correctness of this answer, what each of these standards means will take hours of work to flesh out, which I plan to do. The courts have repeatedly reiterated and referred to these decisions/standards, but the analysis is very fact-intensive and is done case-by-case. Also, I realize the presentation is a little scattershot, as I'm first just looking to include relevant cases and statements the court has made about these standards, but I'll re-make it into a coherent story every once in a while.

  • +0, this answer is not helpful if you don't know what probably cause or reasonable suspicion are, and you also haven't given me enough confidence in your interpretation of those rulings for me to give that information to someone else and be certain that I was correct. Jun 10, 2015 at 15:45
  • @normen agentis yes, I do want them clarified Jun 10, 2015 at 15:56
  • FWIW the are circumstances when someone can be detained on a non-criminal basis subject to different standard (e.g. a 72 hour mental health hold or a failure to appear warrant on a civil subpoena), but none of those exceptions are applicable to the fact pattern in the OP.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 27, 2018 at 22:24

In the UK it is clear-cut: A person can be held for up to 24 hours before being charged or released.

There is no need to search through case law or find comparable circumstances for a specific case. It's one law for everyone.

By contrast Israel tends to have very different laws for different people. Take 2 people in identical circumstances but 1 is Palestinian. The Palestinian would be under military law but his friend being a Christian, Atheist or Jew probably wouldn't even be cautioned let alone arrested - but if they were arrested then it would be under normal civilian law.

Israel has often sent soldiers to arrest children in the middle of the night in their own homes and without warrant or any reasonable suspicion. Such children have then been held for indefinite periods, often years, without any charges or reason being given.

So it is interesting that the USA doesn't have a fixed time-frame for all cases and just has to argue and discuss each case individually.

  • Are the police never required to justify their 24-hour detention of someone without charge? If not, what stops a police officer from detaining someone for no reason whatsoever as an expression of animosity? What if no crime was committed? The issue in discussion here, it should be noted, is not the permissible duration of detention but the permissibility of the detention in the first place. That must be determined based on the facts of the case. Surely the question of whether UK police can detain someone for a specific crime also depends on the particular basis for the suspicion.
    – phoog
    Jun 27, 2018 at 4:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .