If a police officer gives a motorist a traffic ticket, is that technically considered an arrest?

I know that some police behaviors are as follows:

  • Detaining — with reasonable suspicion
  • Investigating — with reasonable suspicion
  • Questioning — potential suspects or witnesses
  • Arresting — with probable cause

During a traffic stop, the police officer clearly has probable cause sufficient for an arrest because s/he presumably witnessed the offense.

Is there a separate category specifically for traffic stops? Or is that considered a subset of the broader category of making an arrest?

The reason for this question is the language in this California statute:

CA Codes (veh:40300-40313)

  1. Whenever any person is arrested for any violation of this code, not declared to be a felony, the arrested person shall be taken without unnecessary delay before a magistrate within the county in which the offense charged is alleged to have been committed and who has jurisdiction of the offense and is nearest or most accessible with reference to the place where the arrest is made in any of the following cases:
    (a) When the person arrested fails to present his driver's license or other satisfactory evidence of his identity for examination.
    (b) When the person arrested refuses to give his written promise to appear in court.
    (c) When the person arrested demands an immediate appearance before a magistrate.
    (d) When the person arrested is charged with violating Section 23152.

See this SO question and answer.

  • 2
    No, a traffic stop is not an arrest.
    – dwoz
    Nov 26, 2015 at 16:48
  • 3
    An officer needs probable cause for an arrest, but if an officer has probable cause, it doesn't turn a detention into an arrest. The line between detention and arrest has to do not with the justification but with the degree to which the subject's liberty is compromised. I am quite sure that a traffic stop is not an arrest as the term is defined in federal courts (see Viktor's answer), but it's not clear what the California statutory definition of "arrest" is.
    – phoog
    Nov 27, 2015 at 15:43
  • 1
    As anecdata, the one time I was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol, I did not have to sign anything; I was not brought before a magistrate; and I was mailed a ticket later on that I simply paid.
    – user662852
    Nov 28, 2015 at 2:29

3 Answers 3


It is not an arrest. There are many supporting cases to indicate why a traffic stop is not an arrest, but a ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States answers the issue in any state of the United States. Quoting page 5 of the opinion of the court in a 2015 case, RODRIGUEZ v. UNITED STATES:

“[A] relatively brief encounter,” a routine traffic stop is “more analogous to a so-called ‘Terry stop’ . . . than to a formal arrest.” Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U. S. 113, 117 (1998) (quoting Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U. S. 420, 439 (1984), in turn citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1 (1968)). See also Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U. S. 323, 330 (2009).

The main issue of the case was suppression of evidence acquired after an unconstitutional delay of a traffic stop. Thus the above is binding precedent and not dicta, since otherwise the evidence would not have been suppressed.

  • 1
    This means that a traffic stop is not an "arrest" as that term is used in federal law. This question is about the term "arrest" as used in the California law cited above. A Supreme Court ruling can't change the definition of a term used in state law; it's entirely possible for a state to define the term "arrest" to denote something that federal court system says isn't an arrest.
    – phoog
    Nov 27, 2015 at 15:40
  • 1
    @phoog yes it can. The issue was fourth amendment suppression of evidence. The fourth amendment is applied to the states via the fourteenth amendment. This case law is binding on states as well.
    – Viktor
    Nov 27, 2015 at 15:42
  • 1
    No, it can't. If the state defines "arrest" so that it covers a police officer asking someone on the street a question, that doesn't mean, in combination with supreme court decisions, that the officer needs probable cause to ask the question.
    – phoog
    Nov 27, 2015 at 15:46
  • 1
    @phoog you are wrong. Take a look at case law. The Supreme Court has defined what an arrest is and what level of evidence an officer must have to perform an arrest. If the officer arrests someone and conducts a search pursuant to that arrest and finds evidence, based on your above definition, the evidence will be suppressed.
    – Viktor
    Nov 27, 2015 at 15:51
  • 1
    No, you are wrong. California can use the word "arrest" such that the term would have be "arrest or detain" in federal law. The hypothetical fact that California uses "arrest" to include detentions as defined by the SC does not change the rules for detention or arrest. Your assertion about the suppression of evidence does not follow. Did you read the answer to the linked question? It was my comment to that answer that sparked this question. The question could be rephrased as "does the word 'arrest' in CA statute include traffic stops?" Federal case law has no bearing on that.
    – phoog
    Nov 27, 2015 at 16:01

Employment questionnaires typically exclude traffic violations in asking about crimes that you may have committed. So merely being stopped for violating such laws does not constitute an "arrest" record.

  • 4
    Notable exception: bar exams often like to see your traffic tickets. :(
    – Pat W.
    Nov 29, 2015 at 0:16
  • Right answer, wrong reason. Whether or not something is a crime does not determine if it is an arrest. You can be convicted of and punished (with, for example, fines in lieu of incarceration) a crime without ever being arrested. And, you can be arrested (e.g. for a non-criminal lack of immigration status that makes you deportable) without committing a crime or being suspected of committing crime.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 7, 2019 at 18:36

Mowzer's question has already been answered, but wanted to add some info. In the state of Texas, a "traffic ticket" is considered a criminal offense and not an infraction. It's a lower criminal that's under "Class C misdemeanors"

This means if you fail to address your ticket (failed to pay, or attend your court hearing date) then a warrant for your arrest WILL be issued. You can end up in jail for a traffic ticket. At that point, a traffic ticket can turn into an arrest.

  • Strictly speaking, in that case, you are not being arrested for the traffic ticket, you are being arrested for failure to appear at court date that you have been ordered to attend, just as you could be if you failed to appear as a witness in a civil breach of contract case, for example, if you were subject to a subpoena. There are, of course, traffic offenses for which you can be arrested (e.g. drunk driving). But, even then, the ticket itself is not the arrest. More generally, issuance and delivery of a citation or summons to appear is not an arrest.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 7, 2019 at 18:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.