How do You Know if You'Re Under Arrest?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Being under arrest can be a frightening experience, but it’s not an experience all people identify immediately. First, different policies apply in different regions. In some countries what seems like an arrest might not be, and it’s important to know the laws of the land, particularly any country a person visits or resides in. Many countries have similar arrest procedures, but a few may differ widely from what is considered normal.

If an officer of the law reads the Miranda Rights, this generally means you are under arrest.
If an officer of the law reads the Miranda Rights, this generally means you are under arrest.

Looking at what being under arrest means is a good place to start. This often means a person is in the custody of the law enforcement agency. Any agency dedicated to some form of law enforcement may have the power to arrest, and any law-abiding citizen must respect that power or risk appearance of fighting an arrest.

Being placed in handcuffs may be indicative of a person being placed under arrest.
Being placed in handcuffs may be indicative of a person being placed under arrest.

The most obvious way of knowing a person is under arrest is that a representative of that law enforcement agency states it. This can be confusing because some people are brought in for questioning, asked to accompany a law enforcement representative, or respond to a request to go to a police station. The general thinking is that people are not under arrest at this particular stage and they have the power to leave at any point or not comply with police requests.

It’s possible these requests for accompaniment or cooperation may be a little more threatening. In fact, some people are asked for cooperation or are told a warrant will be obtained to get it. Depending on the circumstances, such as when people think a warrant for their arrest can’t be obtained, they are not obliged to head to a police station. Of course, they may guess wrong and an officer could quickly return with the needed warrant.

Another part of being under arrest is that people are usually read a list of rights. In the US these are called the Miranda Rights, and they usually must be read for an arrest to be legal. One thing these rights state is that any conversation had can be used against the person arrested. Lawyers will almost always advise that people remember their right to be quiet under arrest. A request for a lawyer should end all conversation with the police.

An additional thing most people will notice about being under arrest is that they are not free to leave. This might change if the arrest is lifted, but, for now, they are detained with force. They could be placed in rooms to be questioned, regional jail cells or elsewhere. There are few freedoms while in this state, and a person may not even be able to use the bathroom without permission. Countries differ on the basic rights that must be afforded to a person who is arrested, but it could be hours prior to obtaining things like a drink of water or something to eat. This is a strong argument for getting legal advice immediately, since these rights may be awarded sooner, as could release.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I hate to admit it, but I did get pulled over for suspicion of DUI when I was in my early 20s. At first the officer just let me sit in the car while he asked all sorts of questions. He asked me if I had been drinking, how much did I have, where was I going and things like that. He asked me to step out of the car to do some field sobriety tests, but he didn't put handcuffs on me. I thought I did okay on the sobriety tests, but I failed the alcohol breathalyzer.

It was only after the machine produced a number that the officer pulled out his handcuffs and told me I was under arrest for driving under the influence. He read the Miranda rights off a card he kept in his shirt pocket. The thing I remember was that he asked me several times if I understood why I was under arrest. I don't think I could have claimed not understanding the charges later, since he did everything by the book.


I've seen incidents on TV police shows where someone will get put in handcuffs and ask "Am I under arrest?". Sometimes the officer will say "You're not under arrest at this time, you are only being detained". I can see where the confusion might be. Handcuffs seem like something a police officer would only use when putting people under arrest. It seems like you can be handcuffed and put into the back of a locked police car even if you're just being questioned.

I think the officer has to say the words "You are under arrest", followed by a list of charges, before it's legal. It seems like the officer has to read the Miranda rights in front of the person, but the person can always claim he or she didn't understand them later. It's only important that the officer read them aloud.

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