Does the popular media cliche Stop, in the name of the law have any founding in actual law or policing practice, either current or historical? Did police ever say this as a matter of course? If so why? If not where did this expression enter the popular consciousness?


4 Answers 4


In long ago English practice, the phrase used was "Stop in the name of the King". At one time this was, if I am not mistaken, required for a valid arrest. I am talking about a time hundreds of years ago, by the way.

That phrase, in turn, goes back to a still older concept. At one time, in Germanic customary law, each important leader had a "peace" -- an area in and around his dwelling, domain, and presence -- in which any violation of law and custom was an offense against the leader, not just against a victim. Inside his "peace" a leader was allowed to enforce rules without any complaint from a victim. Later the peace of all lesser leaders was subsumed in the Kings Peace, which came to cover the entire kingdom, the area of the king's authority and rule. This concept came over with the Normans, although a version of it had come over with the Anglo-Saxons centuries before.

That is why indictments in England (later England and Wales) long included such language as "... That on or about {date} the said {accused} did, against the peace of our Lord the King, his crown and dignity, commit {offense} by {details}..."

I will need to do some searching to find the exact citations to support this, although Charles Rembar's The Law of the Land includes the part about the king's peace.

Specifically, in a footnote on page 192 of my (trade paper) edition (and at location 3345 0f my kindel edition) Rembar writes:

The concept of a “peace” that is a ruler’s right goes back to Germanic law. It belonged not only to a king but to each leader in the social structure. Every ruler, naturally enough, wanted order in his group, as do modern governments. The difference is that freedom from disturbance was considered the chieftain’s personal privilege, and disorder among those he led was a personal affront. With the strengthening of central rule, the king’s peace overrode all others.

I will need to search further to learn just when the phrase "in the name of the law" became common, and when either phrase ceased to be legally required. I believe that the phrase persisted in common use long after it was no longer legally required, but I will need citations for that also. I will update this answer with all of that when I can.

  • 2
    "Against the peace" seems to use the sense of "peace" that denotes a state of affairs rather than a geographical territory.
    – phoog
    May 31, 2021 at 21:28
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    @Phoog I believe that was not the sense in which the term was originally used. The "peace" in that older sense was not exactly a territory, more like a jurisdiction, it was the places and circumstance in which the ruler's personal authority applied. I will try to provide good sources on this. May 31, 2021 at 21:33
  • If I still remember my class well, the concept of peace here was extended from the alliances, agreements or other rules that commit the parties or subjects to peaceful means of conflict resolution, under a higher authority, instead of violence and battles, a concept from which modern laws developed. The institutional concept of Peace followed the Peace of God movement by Catholic churches and civil powers in 10/11th centuries when peace councils (prototype town sheriffs) were established, from which the concept of public peace (peace to pray in church) came into being.
    – xngtng
    Jun 1, 2021 at 0:38
  • It had a territorial component in so far that the peace was mandated to be kept by someone (a council, Bishop, feudal duke etc.) and they have a responsibility to keep the peace for and protect people who cannot feud (women, children, etc.). Initially the right of feud continued despite the Peace, although some regulations were (supposed to be) imposed. Ewiger Landfriede then formally abolished the right and established the King's Peace and created a supreme legal authority on a large scale.
    – xngtng
    Jun 1, 2021 at 0:49
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    I wasn't initially aware of that definition of "peace". Now I see phrases like "disturbing the peace" and "Justice of the Peace" in a whole new light.
    – BenM
    Jun 1, 2021 at 2:28

I have no idea about current legal requirements in English-speaking countries but just for illustration, the equivalent phrase is legally required by current Czech law (Act No. 273/2008 Coll., on the Police of the Czech Republic):

(5) Pokud to okolnosti dovolují, je policista před provedením úkonu, při němž dochází k přímému vynucování splnění právní povinnosti nebo k přímé ochraně práv za použití síly nebo hrozby jejího použití (dále jen „zákrok“), povinen použít slov „Jménem zákona!“ a odpovídající výzvy.

My (plain English) translation:

If the circumstances permit, a police officer must use the words "In the name of the law!" together with an appropriate request before carrying out any action which entails direct enforcement of a legal obligation or direct protection of rights using force or a threat of force (hereinafter referred to as "intervention").

  • 6
    The same in French: "Arrêtez, au nom de la loi" or "je vous arrête au nom de la loi". May 31, 2021 at 16:14
  • So if a Czech police officer could have (circumstances permit) but neglected to add "in the name of the law" when making a request, could that be a valid legal defense in court? What is the logical basis for this rule? Jun 3, 2021 at 2:32
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    @Wowfunhappy IANAL, but my understanding (also of the published commentary to the Act) is that a "request" is always valid (well, under conditions defined elsewhere in the Act) but this particular paragraph defines how to step up from a "request" to an "intervention" (enforcement action). Essentially, using the magic word is the required first level of enforcement before proceeding to further coercive means (force or threat thereof). Needlessly skipping the magic words would likely make the use of force illegal, giving you grounds to complain about "police brutality".
    – TooTea
    Jun 3, 2021 at 7:19

Not in

In Germany the phrase police uses in the Tatort series as well as Polizeiruf 110 - a pair of police/crime drama series that have been around for 50 years by now - is generally a variant of "Halt! Polizei!", translating to "Stop! Police!" The word halt at times is replaced by other words to demand a stop, or the order is swapped (Polizei! Anhalten!)

This two-word command however is the official method - and finds itself on police equipment. The paddle with the red light to stop cars? This is officially called a Winkerkelle. It has written "Halt Polizei" or "Halt Feuerwehr" around the light, at times replacing Halt with Stop. The same words of Halt Polizei also are on the tape used to secure crime scenes.

Military Guard

Military guard detachments guarding military security areas (e.g. bases, airfields, and shooting ranges - generally everything that is behind a fence) demand stopping following ZDv 10/6 (protection and security of the Bundeswehr) & 14/9 (special allowances on the use of force for military guards) using the order "Halt! Stehenbleiben!" (Stop! Stand still!), followed by the escalation of "Halt! Oder ich schieße!" (Stop! Or I will shoot!), or alternatively shooting into the air in a sharp angle. The direct follow-up for non-compliance on that escalation step is shooting aimed.

  • As a soldier, we were taught the formula "Im Namen des Gesetzes nehme ich Sie fest.". Would be surprised to learn that police forces do it differently. Anhaltung is not the same as Festnahme.
    – dlatikay
    May 31, 2021 at 16:59
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    @dlatikay that's when arresting, and yes, it is part of the standard procedure to name the authority in who's name the arrest is done, but not to demand someone to stop.
    – Trish
    May 31, 2021 at 17:42
  • @dlatikay ZDv 10/6 & 14/9 contain the protocol if my Reibert doesn't fail me.
    – Trish
    Jun 1, 2021 at 14:37
  • Pretty sure "Stop! Police!" or something similar is the standard practice in the US as well, possibly "Stop! Or I'll shoot!" is used as well. Replacing "Stop" with "Halt" may be more common in the UK. I don't think anyone uses "in the name of the law" in reality, unless they've been watching too many movies... Jun 1, 2021 at 17:37
  • @DarrelHoffmann "stop or I'll shoot" fails to identify the authority underlying the order to stop, which is a legal requirement in at least some jurisdictions. Of course, it's possible for the information to have been given earlier (perhaps by virtue of the officer wearing a uniform with a badge), in which case it would probably not be necessary to repeat it. It's probably safer to do it as a matter of habit, however.
    – phoog
    Jan 31, 2022 at 11:39

In many U.S. states, ordinary citizens have a statutory legal obligation to follow a lawful order of a law enforcement officer (most often, this comes up in traffic situations and when evacuations are necessary). The scope of this legal obligations is explored, for example, in the linked 2020 Yale Law Review article by James Mooney. The abstract of the article explains that:

Forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government make it a crime to disobey the “lawful orders” of police officers. But there is significant uncertainty about what makes an order lawful. This uncertainty leaves people in the dark about their rights and obligations, risks unfair convictions, and allows police to needlessly escalate confrontations due to civilian confusion or minor noncompliance. This Comment proposes a model statute that would clarify and limit officers’ authority while informing civilians about the legal risks of disobedience.

The exceptions, by the way, are Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia, and West Virginia (see footnote 34 in the linked article).

Saying something like the phrase mentioned is an order accompanied by a means calculated to inform the person hearing it that it is a lawful order of a law enforcement officer.

  • 1
    With reference to the last paragraph, other examples of such phrases including such means are "Stop; police!" (mentioned in a comment), and "Police; freeze!" (another trope of TV and movies). I mention this to point out that this answer explains the practice generally, and because the question is tagged media.
    – phoog
    Jan 31, 2022 at 11:33
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    I wonder whether a court has ever (or could conceivably) find that "in the name of the law" is insufficiently specific in identifying the speaker as a police officer. Any official, or even any citizen attempting a citizen's arrest, could claim to be acting "in the name of the law."
    – phoog
    Jan 31, 2022 at 11:43

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