Does a police officer require permission before breaking the law?

Justice Brandeis states:

Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means — to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal — would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this court should resolutely set its face.

Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485, 48 S.Ct. 564, 575, 72 L.Ed. 944 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting):

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    What do you mean by have to? You and I don't have to get permission to break the law. Most people who break the law don't, in fact. There are exceptions which allow all people to do things which would be illegal except in certain circumstances, and maybe some special ones that apply only to law enforcement. Is that what you mean?
    – Patrick87
    Nov 21, 2015 at 14:10
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    Are you suggesting that it may be legal for a police officer to do illegal things if they get "permission" first? That seems to be internally contradictory and frankly absurd. Nov 21, 2015 at 18:37
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit not really. If the officer has permission, the act is not illegal. For example, it is illegal for me to carry a gun in New York City because I don't have a permit. Police officers can and do carry them, however.
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2015 at 19:57
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    @phoog: Suppose it depends where you draw the line on when something becomes legal "with permission". In a sense, literally everything that's legal only is so because we have "permission" in that it's not been deemed illegal. But it seems clear that the OP is looking for a broader rule and ostensibly unconditional illegalities may be waived for a police officer because some bloke has said it's okay for the day. Nov 21, 2015 at 20:10
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    It would help the reader if you would provide some more details or examples in your question.
    – user3270
    Nov 22, 2015 at 0:25

2 Answers 2


The question is oddly phrased: The law does not give allowances for its violation.

Many laws have exceptions. E.g., the law against killing endangered animals contains an exception for defensive killings.

Perhaps you are thinking of safe harbors? For example, there are general provisions in the law like "exigent circumstances" that allow police to proceed with actions that, absent those provisions, would constitute violations of law.

"Permission" to violate a right can be granted explicitly in the form of a warrant, which allows law enforcement to "violate" specific property and freedom rights.

Finally, one might consider an executive pardon or to be ex post "permission to break the law."

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    It's worth noting that if an act is prohibited by law, except under certain circumstances, such as obtaining permission before engaging in the act, then engaging in the act under those circumstances is not violating the law. That's what a permit does, after all. It's illegal for new to sell food on the street, but not for a permitted vendor to do so.
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2015 at 19:55

Police officers cannot legally break the law.

However, the law that governs police officers allows them to do things in the course of their duties that would be illegal for other people. This is not permission to break the law: it is that different laws apply to police officers.

For example, the powers of NSW Police are governed by (among other things) the LAW ENFORCEMENT (POWERS AND RESPONSIBILITIES) ACT 2002. Of particular interest is s4 which says:

4 Relationship to common law and other matters

(1) Unless this Act otherwise provides expressly or by implication, this Act does not limit:

(a) the functions, obligations and liabilities that a police officer has as a constable at common law, or

(b) the functions that a police officer may lawfully exercise, whether under an Act or any other law as an individual (otherwise than as a police officer) including, for example, powers for protecting property.

(2) Without limiting subsection (1) and subject to section 9, nothing in this Act affects the powers conferred by the common law on police officers to deal with breaches of the peace.

So, in addition to the specific powers given by this Act (among others) they also have the powers of "a constable at common law"; that is they can draw on about 1,000 years of case law to determine what they can lawfully do.

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    In fact, US DoJ policies on the topic don't talk about illegal activity, they talk about otherwise illegal activity.
    – cpast
    Nov 21, 2015 at 23:40
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    Since this is a largely semantic question I think it's worth clarifying that, like anyone else, police can and do break the law, and they are supposed to be held accountable for violations of law just like anyone else. Yes, laws vary by situation, occupation, etc. But saying "police cannot break the law" sounds like you are saying either that police are infallible or else that they are above the law.
    – feetwet
    Nov 22, 2015 at 1:44
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    They receive special consideration before the law for very many purposes, though, and even when they don't de jure they typically get away with what they please, as the recent and ongoing spate of news (and I and certain other mistreated folks I know) can attest, which effectively gives them more permissions still. It's a bill of attainder on commoners who wouldn't be subject to it were they in the correct governmental capacity or wearing the right hat. This is not to say that the footing we are on couldn't be more unequal (cf. much of the world); it just isn't as officially claimed. Nov 22, 2015 at 4:27
  • I'm gleaning from this answer and the comments that police officers have special circumstances when they are permitted to break the law. Are those circumstances clearly defined in the statutes? If those circumstances are not defined in the statutes, then is the police officer in violation of the law? Nov 23, 2015 at 5:06
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    @Breakskater: Yes, or more accurately "are permitted to do things which would be breaking the law if done by people who are not police officers". For example, speed limits in England and Wales do not apply to emergency services responding to an emergency. The statue which which establishes speed limits has that as a specific exception. Mar 14, 2016 at 15:23

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