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This question (and this one written in parallel) comes out of discussion on a more specific question with details about a particular situation, which was apparently too specific for this site.

When plainclothes officers driving an unmarked car want to arrest a person, how do they identify themselves in a way that isn't easily faked, especially when they're acting against somebody who has government-mandated duties to protect items in his custody?

This is different from "(When) are police required to identify themselves?" because that question is about getting the name and badge number of a uniformed on-duty officer, where it's clear they are police but not known exactly who/which specific officer they are. This question pertains to individuals who are not wearing a uniform and not driving a marked police car, and who are making demands of another person, including detaining that person and taking them away against the person's will and in violation of the person's duties.

While the option of calling for backup by uniformed officers in a marked car could be one strategy, suppose that the people who claim to be police are not using that option for whatever reason (maybe because they aren't police, maybe they just don't want to).

This is also related to "How can you tell if you have to follow a police officer's instructions?" but for the case of someone who is not in uniform and just claims to be a police officer.

There are examples of people who kidnap others by claiming to be police, and it seems to be illegal to resist such a kidnapping (see motivating question about that specific situation here). Not all the people who use this strategy have made the news and even of those who have, not all have been caught. It's common enough there are even pop-culture memes about people falsely claiming to be the police not having to identify themselves ("We don't need no stinkin' badges!") but the meme may or may not match the law.

  • I tried to ask what I think is the underlying question here: law.stackexchange.com/questions/8129/… – user3851 Mar 29 '16 at 18:46
  • I see there's been a strange merge, which I don't think is appropriate. At one point, I suggested merging the question by Dawn with this one because we were both writing the same spin-off question about a slightly different topic, but I don't think this is quite the same as the question about being able to resist kidnapping. – Burned Mar 30 '16 at 4:02
  • @Burned - Sorry I misunderstood the merge suggestion. If this post and its answers don't cover your question you're welcome to post another one. However the rambling question that was merged into this one would have needed serious editing to stay open. I thought this version was your attempt to restate it in a coherent and on-topic fashion. – feetwet Mar 30 '16 at 12:28
  • @feetwet Could you at the least restore Dawn's comment that preceded and added essential context to the one comment you left? – Burned Mar 31 '16 at 0:30
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    @feetwet the other question you merged comes out of a case which teaches that "when people who appear to be violating the law and doing bad things against you give you orders, you MUST comply with them or else you can face criminal charges, esp. if they do turn out to be police." This gives a broad license to criminals who are willing to tell their victims they're police, because the victims are then not legally allowed to resist. That's a very alarming conclusion and I would still like to get other perspectives/analysis on that basic question/issue. But, it seems that's not welcome here. – Burned Mar 31 '16 at 0:44
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In Massachusetts law it says the following:

The term ''police officer'' as used in this section shall mean a police officer in uniform or, if out of uniform, one who has identified himself by exhibiting his credentials as such police officer while attempting such arrest.

So, showing a badge or ID card or possibly even an official business card would be sufficient under the law.

  • Aren't business cards easy to fake? If I demanded to see such credentials, wouldn't that be considered resisting (or some other contempt-of-cop offense like disorderly conduct), especially given how low the bar is to be publicly accused of resisting arrest? Does this mean it is illegal for the victims of the scams linked to in the last paragraph to defend themselves? – Burned Mar 29 '16 at 20:04
  • Uniforms and badges can be bought off of eBay. It doesn't matter. All that matters is whether the prosecutor can prove to the court that the cop presented a "credential" and that includes business cards. – Cicero Mar 29 '16 at 20:11
  • @Cicero No it doesn't. Police officers have to show you proper id - their badge. – Zizouz212 Mar 29 '16 at 23:34
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    @Zizouz212 In Massachusetts any credential is valid. In fact, even simply having a police radio has been accepted as valid "proof" in actual court cases that the person who was arrested was properly informed. – Cicero Mar 29 '16 at 23:42
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You are not allowed to resist arrest. You may always resist a kidnapping. You are not required to answer all questions and comply with all orders that anybody gives you, only most of those that police officers give you (barring exercise of your 5th Amendment rights). You are not allowed to resist arrest.

The details of these principles are covered in the following questions/answers:

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    When the officers are plainclothes officers driving an unmarked car, how do I tell the difference between who's really police and who just claims to be? Given the requirements to comply if it is police, and the difficulty in telling the difference, does that mean the requirements extend to anyone who is willing to claim to be police? – Burned Mar 29 '16 at 18:14
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    @burned You're not going to get advice on how to act in a particular circumstance. That is beyond the responsible scope of this site. You can ask what the law is, but we can't advise you how to act. – user3851 Mar 29 '16 at 18:18
  • It appears the law is different if the person doing the demanding is or is not a police officer. What does the law require of a reasonable person who does not know whether the non-uniformed men aggressively driving an unmarked car and making demands of him are police officers or not? – Burned Mar 29 '16 at 18:20
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    Dawn: Historically there was an absolute right to resist unlawful arrests -- a right which still exists in some states. – feetwet Mar 30 '16 at 13:54
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    @feetwet Agreed. I wasn't considering those to be arrests. That's my fault for setting up a no-true-scotsman fallacy ("they're not real arrests if they're not lawful..."). Several (maybe many) states require the person being arrested to at least have knowledge that the arrester is an officer for a resisting arrest charge to apply. – user3851 Mar 30 '16 at 14:47
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The best defense is to comply with police instructions if you are under arrest and sort out the issues later.

If it is not clear whether you are you under arrest, ask "Am I under arrest?"

If the answer is NO, leave.

If the answer is YES, SHUT UP AND SAY NOTHING OTHER THAN "I want to speak with my lawyer."

Am I required to answer all questions and comply with all orders that anybody gives me? Am I allowed to defend myself against being taken away against my will and in violation of my duties with respect to the mail? If the answer is "sometimes," how do I tell the difference between situations where it's yes and those where it's no?

If you are are arrested, you are not required to answer ANY questions. You are not allowed to defend against being taken if you are under arrest.

You do not want to give the police any grounds to charge you with anything.

If we go by the facts as stated above and in the news report, this arrest stinks. Sadly, you're screwed in this situation (at the moment). Your goal in this bad situation is to have clean hands when you file a civil suit against the officers. Ease your suffering with cold, hard cash.

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    I wouldn't give advise about what specific actions a person should take. If the answer to "Am I under arrest?" is "NO", it isn't necessarily the best action to just leave. If the answer is "yes", the right action isn't necessarily to say nothing other than "I want to speak with my lawyer". For example, it may be prudent to explicitly invoke your fifth amendment right to remain silent. – user3851 Mar 29 '16 at 18:31
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    You talk about "comply with police instructions" but what if I can't tell whether they are actually police or not? – Burned Mar 29 '16 at 18:32
  • @Burned Now you're asking about what you should do again. We can't give that type of advise here. – user3851 Mar 29 '16 at 18:33
  • @Dawn OK, what does the law require then? Am I allowed to defend myself, or required to comply? – Burned Mar 29 '16 at 18:34
  • @Burned You can't resist arrest. Like I said in the other comment thread, your question is really about how or whether police need to positively identify themselves to you during an arrest. – user3851 Mar 29 '16 at 18:35

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