It is common knowledge that when you are arrested, the arresting officer is required to read you your Miranda rights. But, sometimes, if and when you are actually placed under arrest can be unclear. The definition of when a detention or an arrest occurs has become one of the most important and heavily debated issues in criminal defense.

When you were placed under arrest brings up issues regarding your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and when you can exercise your Miranda rights. The definition of detention was brought into question during a court case that could have a major impact going forward.

When should you speak with police?

A prosecutor’s case can become completely unraveled based on when you were detained. For instance, this could happen if you were detained even though there was no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred. In this case, if a search or seizure of your property took place but you were never advised of your Miranda rights, all evidence that was obtained during that illegal search will likely be suppressed because it was not obtained with proper advisements.

However, questioning you or searching your property could be legal in certain circumstances. An officer may approach you in a public place and ask if you are willing to answer some questions. If you voluntarily answer those questions, your responses and the officer’s observations would be admissible as evidence in criminal court.

In order to avoid voluntarily making incriminating statements, it is important that you avoid talking to investigators under all circumstances. If law enforcement officers question you, you should politely inform them that you decline to speak without having your attorney present. This is true regardless of whether or not you have been placed under arrest.

The Definition of Detention

In the court case People v. Shauntrell Ray Brown, the definition of detention was brought into question. Responding to a 911 call, a police officer spotted a vehicle leaving the scene of the alleged incident. The officer called out to the driver, but the driver ignored him. The officer saw the vehicle parked a few blocks away, flashed his emergency lights, and found that the driver was intoxicated. The driver was convicted of DUI.

On appeal, the court was asked to consider:

  • Whether this incident was detention or a voluntary encounter; and
  • Whether the officer flashing his emergency lights was enough to demonstrate a show of authority

The prosecution argued that because the driver voluntarily stopped his vehicle before the officer arrived, the incident should not be considered detention until the officer approached the vehicle. The court disagreed, stating that the detention occurred in this case when the officer made his presence known by flashing his emergency lights. The court ruled that because the officer’s lights were flashing, a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.

According to the court, an officer using their emergency lights is a show of authority, and this would cause the average person to believe that they are not free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter. The court clarified this decision by stating that they do not consider this a "bright-line rule," so an officer’s use of emergency lights in close proximity to a parked car does not always mean that the person inside the vehicle should be considered under arrest.

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