So I would first like to state I'm not asking this because I'm trying to find out how much evidence it would take for law enforcement to arrest me (I'm not a hacker).

From what I've gathered, law enforcement can't legally arrest you without having enough evidence to convict you (Even if they have your IP tying you to a hacked website or something). From what I've learnt, they only get the evidence by investigating your computer. Is that right?

Or do they really need to investigate the hacker's computer? And if they do have to investigate the hacker's computer what exactly would they need to "Find" to convict him?

  • 3
    "Law enforcement cant legally arrest you without having enough evidence to convict you" - this isn't true. They only need probable cause to arrest you and search your things. Does that change your question at all?
    – user3851
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:51
  • 1
    @Dawn I don't think the "probable cause" doctrine is universal, and I don't see that a specific jurisdiction has been specified. Granted, justification for arrest is probably less stringent in jurisdictions without probable cause rather than more, which just reinforces your point, but I am by no means certain of that.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 4:24

3 Answers 3


Anyone can be arrested, as long as the police (and in some cases, anyone) have probable cause to do so. This generally includes two points:

  • You are in the process of committing a criminal act
  • The police have probable cause, generally through evidence, that you are in the process of, about to, or have committed a criminal act. This usually requires obtaining a warrant for the arrest.

However, it's important not to conflate searches with arrest. Arrests are when you are being taken into custody for the reasons mentioned above. Searches are when your personal belongings (i.e. property), are searched to collect evidence.

It is not up to police to convict someone. This is the job of the judicial system. There's a bit of terminology here: convictions basically mean being found guilty of an offence. Police don't have the ability to convict someone of an offence. They do have the ability to arrest, and charge with an offence. To charge someone with a crime basically means to accuse them of having done something.

Now let's get to the actual crime. Since you haven't mentioned a specific jurisdiction, I'm going to use Canadian cases and law, but in general, it should apply worldwide.

If the police have reason to believe that you are engaging in unlawful hacking-related behaviour, then they have the authority to arrest you. They simply need to have a reasonable belief that you are engaged in the crime. Something such as connecting you with an IP address and connecting that you were online at the time is enough.

If the police need to find out more information (which they generally do, to investigate further into the matter) - they can obtain a search warrant afterwards. With this, they can legally search into your computer, and investigate. Any evidence that they collect can be used in court.

I've recently done some research into cyber crimes. One rather infamous case involved the attack on multiple large scale websites, including Dell, Yahoo, and Amazon, in 2000. This sparked a large scale investigations, between the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the FBI. The attacks were claimed by some to cause nearly 1.7 billion dollars of damage. The hacker was charged with 58 different offences. You can imply from the linked article that he was arrested before his computer was searched.

  • 1
    In the US, police can't charge either. That's up to the prosecutor's office.
    – cpast
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 3:15
  • @cpast Police in the United States charge people all day, every day.
    – bdb484
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 13:24
  • @bdb484 No, police in the US don't charge people. Prosecutors charge people. Criminal complaints are signed by prosecutors, not police officers.
    – cpast
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 22:25
  • Erm. In what state is this true?
    – bdb484
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 0:52

If the police could only arrest you with enough evidence to get a conviction, why would we need courts? Because every arrest would obviously lead to a conviction, right?

No, you can be arrested if the police can reasonably believe that you have committed a crime (police has "probable cause"). They can be wrong, and release you as soon as they figure out they were wrong.

Or they can find enough evidence that a prosecutor takes you to court - and then a jury can find you not guilty, and you are free.

Or they find enough evidence that the prosecutor takes you to court, and then convinces the jury that you are "guilty beyond reasonable doubt" - then you get convicted.

Whether they need to investigate the "hacker's" computer depends on the situation. If you hack a website and blackmail the website operator to send you $10,000 in small banknotes, and the police can prove that you are the one who received those bank notes, that might be enough evidence to convict you without even looking at your computer. (Whether it is enough evidence is for the jury to decide).



Assuming you're in the United States, all the police need to arrest you is a warrant based on probable cause. If your brother goes to the police and says he sat next to you and watched you hack into some other system, that would probably be enough to persuade a judge to sign a warrant for your arrest.

A conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the offense, and the government generally has the discretion to decide how to present its case. If they had enough evidence for an arrest warrant, it would be an awfully rare case where they could not or would not also pursue a search warrant for the computer to obtain evidence that would bolster their case.

But there is no formal requirement that they do so to obtain a conviction. In the same hypothetical, a jury could probably return a guilty verdict based on the brother's testimony alone.

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