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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.

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    No, a traffic stop is not an arrest.
    – dwoz
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 16:48
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    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
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:43
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    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
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 2:29
  • To "arrest"simply means to "stop". Do you mean did they commit a crime and are now criminals? Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 3:37
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    @Mark Rosenblitt-Janssen Etymologically "arrest" means "stop". But in a legal context it is a term of art with a much more specific meaning. "Take into custody" would be a good definition. Whether someone is arrested is quite different from whether that person actually committed a crime. Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 4:39

5 Answers 5

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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.

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    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
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:40
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    @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
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:42
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    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
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:46
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    @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
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:51
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    @DaveD This is merely proof that the state trooper's vocabulary and training in law enforcement relevant law is lacking (similarly, law enforcement also routinely describes couples as being in "common law marriages" when they are not). He called it an arrest but it actually wasn't one. The correct legal terminology for what the trooper did is a "Terry stop" or more colloquially a "traffic stop", which is distinct from an arrest. Rule of thumb, if you are not in handcuffs and not locked into a vehicle or room, you are probably not under arrest for purposes of constitutional criminal procedure.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 18:45
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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.

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    Notable exception: bar exams often like to see your traffic tickets. :(
    – Pat W.
    Commented 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
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 18:36
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I have drafted two dozen motions on this issue where people desired to seal a traffic citation under a fairly new statute - PC851.91 which requires the sealing of an arrest which did not result in a conviction. “There is no question Petitioner having been stopped and cited warrants presuming he was arrested. Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 533 U.S. 924,121 S. Ct. 2540.”

Similarly, a traffic stop is an “arrest” in federal parlance. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996); United States v. Childs, 277 F.3d 947 (7th Cir.2002) (en banc). Cf. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 111 S.Ct. 1547, 113 L.Ed.2d 690 (1991).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit considered it in United States v. Morgan, 354 F.3d 621 (7th Cir. 2003) found a person who receives a traffic citation is “halted and prevented from leaving until the officer release[s] him.” 354 F.3d at 623. It is well established that an arrest takes place when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave, even if that person is never taken to jail. United States v. Drayton, 536 U.S. 194, 201 (2002); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 (1968).

Traffic citations were also addressed in the California Supreme Court decision in People v. Superior Ct., 7 Cal. 3d 186, 200, 496 P.2d 1205, 1215 (1972) where the court found a traffic citation is an arrest.

But when the officer determines there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and begins the process of citing the violator to appear in court (Veh.Code, ss 40500—40504), an ‘arrest’ takes place at least in the technical sense: ‘The detention which results (during the citation process) is ordinarily brief, and the conditions of restraint are minimal. Nevertheless the violator is, during the period immediately preceding his execution of the promise to appear under arrest.

The Vehicle Code, however, refers to the person awaiting citation as ‘the arrested person.’ Viewing the situation functionally, the violator is being detained against his will by a police officer, for the purpose of obtaining his appearance in connection with a forthcoming prosecution. The violator is not free to depart until he has satisfactorily identified himself and has signed the written promise to appear.' (Fns. omitted.) (People v. Hubbard (1970) 9 Cal.App.3d 827, 833, 88 Cal.Rptr. 411, 415.) [Emphasis added]

I hope this is of use to some and wish everyone here the best!

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  • "It is well established...": Terry v. Ohio specifically concerns a situation that was not an arrest, so it doesn't lend any support to the proposition that "an arrest takes place when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave." Also I looked at a half dozen of the cited cases and saw nothing supporting that proposition, nor that "a traffic stop is an “arrest” in federal parlance." Can you add some quotations showing why you think these cases support these propositions ? I don't see the first quotation in Atwater. Perhaps you can add some links.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 12:26
  • Greetings, Terry focuses on detention for crime which have, had, or about to occur. My focus is on if a traffic citation is an arrest. The cases I cited which speak on being cited would be the cases I rely on. I added a California Supreme Court case and hope this clarifies my answer for you. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 2:58
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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.

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    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
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 18:40
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You are actually pointing out some severe under-managed terms in the field.

An officer technically can only detain or investigate someone "at will". That means they can hold a conversation with them, but the individual can walk away or refuse. They have a right to remain silent, you could say.

When an officer detains a motorist, they are presumably under arrest, because they're going to write a ticket.

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    The right to remain silent has nothing to do with the ability to walk away from a conversation with a police officer. The police officer can lawfully prevent the person from walking away if the officer holds reasonable suspicion (e.g. that the person was involved in a crime) and the officer can arrest the person with sufficient probable cause. But even in those circumstances, the person retains the right to remain silent. And, as noted elsewhere, the "Terry stop" of a motorist is distinct from an arrest in federal law, yet the person is indeed detained and cannot leave at will.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 11:49
  • @phoog: No, an officer cannot prevent a person from walking away merely by suspicion. If the person was involved in a crime, then they are under arrest and can stop them, but here suspicion is just the luck of the draw, mate. You can't give so much power on the police just for their mere curiosity. Sorry. That's on their own time, not the citizens. If police don't have the respect from citizens that they will sit there and answer all of their questions, they have a PR problem and shouldn't make it a legal one. Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 16:49
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    Here's what the Ohio chapter of the ACLU says about Terry: "In June 1968, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and set a precedent that allows police officers to interrogate and frisk suspicious individuals without probable cause for an arrest, providing that the officer can articulate a reasonable basis for the stop and frisk." So no, not "mere curiosity," but yes, "reasonable articulable suspicion," which is distinct from mere curiosity. A Terry stop is neither voluntary nor optional nor an arrest.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:11

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