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Being arrested vs being detained: What’s the difference?

On Behalf of | Apr 3, 2023 | Civil Rights

Any encounter with the police can produce anxiety and fear. However, there is a distinct difference between the types of encounters you may experience.

In fact, some encounters can result in formal criminal charges. Therefore, you should understand the differences between detainment and arrest.


To legally detain you, the police need to believe that you have done something illegal. However, they do not have to have proof or evidence of your crimes. The police can only detain you for a reasonable amount of time, just long enough to determine whether you committed a crime, without charging you. You do have to provide identification if law enforcement asks for it, but you do not have to answer any questions. The police may detain you if you act suspiciously.


An arrest occurs when the police have a reasonable belief or cause that you committed a crime. The officer may place you in handcuffs and read you your Miranda rights. The officers typically find some evidence during or after the arrest process. You should appear before a judge within 24 hours of your arrest.

De facto arrest

If law enforcement detains you for longer than is reasonable, you may experience a de facto arrest. This means that your arrest is not official. For example, if the police question you and you still do not feel like you can leave freely, you experience a de facto arrest.

Also, if law enforcement used force or they suspected you had a weapon, your detention may turn into an arrest by the court. However, the use of handcuffs and placing you in the back of a police car does not necessarily signify an arrest.

In some cases, you may not know that the police formally arrested you, so ask if you are not sure.