What is an Unlawful Arrest?
Being arrested is definitely one of the most stressful experiences most of us will ever have in our lives. In fact, according to the widely-recognized Holmes-Rahe stress level chart, being legally detained follows only death and divorce as far as being an incredibly stressful situation. There is simply no disputing that being detained, cuffed, searched, and taken into custody can be traumatic. Your personal property is likely to be searched—and potentially damaged—and you could even be physically harmed. If you resist the arrest, you could find yourself facing additional criminal charges. If you have done something wrong, you might expect to be arrested (even though it remains a traumatic event) but if you are truly innocent, the trauma of an arrest multiplies exponentially.
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While a lawful arrest is one that is performed according to probable cause protocol, in compliance with federal and state laws and codes, an unlawful or false arrest occurs when you are arrested without any probable cause—or without having your Miranda Rights read, etc. Arrests are only meant to occur when there is enough evidence and probable cause to ensure the person being arrested has a high probability of being the actual culprit. Not only must there be probable cause for an arrest, but every arrest must also be done in a lawful manner. In other words, law enforcement may not arrest suspects based on suspicion, a gut feeling, or ill will toward the person.
As you might imagine, however, “probable cause,” is a highly subjective term, with each police officer determining whether he or she has probable cause for the arrest. When an arrest is made with no probable cause—and this does happen more often than you might think—it can do irreparable harm to the innocent victim of the arrest. Even if you are later acquitted of the charges, your arrest will still show up on your criminal record. You may wonder just how often unlawful arrests actually occur. The answer to that question is “too often.”
Arrests in the United States
According to a 2019 article by The Intercept, there was one arrest made every three seconds in the United States in 2016. That’s a total of 10,662,252 total arrests over the course of one year—almost 11 million. Many police departments measure the performance of their officers by the number of stops and arrests they make. In some instances, arrests are made as a method of seizing their assets under civil asset forfeiture law or to increase municipal revenues by generating fines and fees.
Particularly objectionable is a police practice known as “collars for dollars.” This means that officers approaching the end of their shift will make an arrest as a means of earning overtime pay. The officer is required to remain with the person arrested throughout the lengthy booking process. As an example, a marijuana possession at the end of an officer’s shift can translate into hundreds of dollars in the officer’s pocket.
Of those millions of arrests, only 5 percent are for violent crimes, while a full 80 percent are for low-level offenses. These low-level offenses include “crimes” like disorderly conduct, violations of local ordinances, minor drug violations, and civil violations like failure to pay fines or failure to pay child support.
Since 1980, arrests for drug violations have increased by a whopping 170 percent, and, unfortunately, racial disparities regarding arrests are equally apparent. Even though most arrests are ultimately dismissed, this aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses can cause long-term damage, both to the individual and to communities and their relationship with law enforcement. Yet police officers continue using arrests as an enforcement tool of their own, rather than the purpose arrests were meant for—channeling criminal behavior into the justice system.
An arrest is the first entryway into a criminal justice system that most acknowledge sorely needs a major overhaul. Of all the steps on the pathway to jail or prison, arrests remain the largest, least scrutinized step of our nation’s mass incarceration and policing issues. Since law enforcement agencies voluntarily self-report data, it is difficult to know the true level of false or unlawful arrests in the country.
And even though many communities have decriminalized the personal use of marijuana, there appears to be a disconnect between those decisions and what’s happening on the police side. In other words, failure to prosecute does not mean that the police may not still arrest you, making you pass through the criminal justice system.
Arrests Made with No Probable Cause
Ultimately, the bottom line is that arresting a slew of people does not actually make anyone any safer. Further, making aggressive arrests with little probable cause neither solves crimes nor improves public safety. When you consider that only about 25 percent of reported crimes are cleared through an arrest, you can clearly see that the police are arresting far too many innocent people. Arresting an innocent person can have an enormous impact on that person—not only emotionally and mentally, but financially as well. An arrest can harm a person’s ability to find a job or housing or could lead to deportation or a loss of child custody.
Unnecessary arrests also come at a cost to community safety. At the moment of the arrest, the individual arrested, bystanders, and officers are all placed at risk of real physical harm. Communities that witness a high number of unlawful or false arrests show damaged relationships between community members and law enforcement as a whole. Since people do not go to jail or prison without first being arrested, it is clear we need to find alternatives to arrests made without probable cause or to meet quotas. There is another aspect to unlawful arrests which is violations of civil rights. This may include failure to ensure an arrestee has been read his or her Miranda rights, police brutality, or other forms of police misconduct.
Unlawful Arrests Through Violations of Civil Rights
Even when your arrest was made as a result of true probable cause, there may be other aspects of your arrest that violated your rights. During your arrest, an officer may have used excessive force—a force that was not warranted, given the situation. If you are not resisting arrest in any way, yet an officer uses excessive force on you, then he or she has violated your rights.
As our nation has seen in recent years, individuals of color seem to disproportionately be subjected to police brutality (the unjustified use of a taser, excessive or unjustified use of a firearm, verbal threats of physical harm, the misuse of chemical weapons, unjustified physical attacks, including chokeholds and a knee on the neck, or the use of a police dog or police vehicle to intimidate).
Police brutality exists when an officer fails to use verbal commands prior to escalating to physical force, the use of physical force after the individual has been restrained or the use of deadly force when a non-lethal alternative would be equally effective. When an individual is cooperating, unarmed, and not exhibiting violent behavior, then excessive physical force is not warranted.
Police misconduct, while not causing the level of physical harm seen with police brutality, can nonetheless result in emotional and mental trauma on the part of the victim. Police misconduct encompasses many actions, including:
- Coercive interrogations
- Filing false reports
- Witness tampering
- Racial profiling
- Enforcing the law on a selective basis
- Any act resulting in false imprisonment, physical harm, or death of a suspect
- Any act that violates the Constitutional rights of a suspect
- Sexual misconduct against a suspect
- Failure to intervene on the part of one officer when another is violating a victim’s Constitutional rights
- Deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition or substantial risk of harm to a suspect
- Any other type of abusive police procedures
Failure to read a suspect his or her Miranda rights can also be classified as an unlawful arrest. If you are arrested and the officer does not read you your Miranda Rights (you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you, you have the right to have a lawyer present during questioning, and if you cannot afford a lawyer one will be appointed for you), then whatever you say cannot technically be used against you.
You must actually be under arrest before the police are required to convey your Miranda Rights to you; often officers will avoid actually arresting you in order to skip the Miranda reading and get you to talk, then they will arrest you. A violation of your Miranda Rights does not necessarily mean your statements were coerced, but it does mean that incriminating statements you make prior to being read your rights may not be used in court to further the case against you.
If you believe you are the victim of an unlawful arrest it is crucial that you speak to an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who can comprehensively evaluate the facts of your claim, recommending potential options. A wrongful or unlawful arrest is a violation of your rights and protections as a citizen, and you do have the right to fight back.
Get the Help You Need
You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.