Unlawful Arrests, Are They Common?

Unlawful Arrests
Unlawful arrest (also called “false arrest”) is one of the darker aspects of the American criminal justice system. To understand unlawful arrest and its magnitude, we must look briefly at the laws surrounding the act of arrest itself. Then we can better examine the available statistics on how many unlawful arrests occur in the U.S. and what portion of total arrests they represent.

What Is Unlawful Arrest?

Police officers cannot, under the law, simply arrest anyone they choose. They must establish “probable cause” for making the arrest. The legal definition for this determination is that:

“…probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers’ knowledge and of which they had reasonable trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed”

–Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-76 (1948)

In other words, the officers on the scene must have a reason to believe that the person they are arresting is guilty of a crime. But the standard is highly subjective and depends to a large extent on the arresting officer’s perceptions, beliefs, and state of mind. Given the fluid nature of what constitutes probable cause, it is not surprising that unlawful arrests do occur.

How Do Unlawful Arrests Occur?

A large proportion of unlawful arrests occur during high-volume arrest situations—such as drug stings, random roadblocks, political protests, and “sweeps” for illegal immigrants—where many people are arrested at a single scene. Other causes include errors in arrest warrants, errors in suspect descriptions or addresses, misidentification of suspects, officer bias, and malice. Sometimes a person is arrested merely for being at the scene where a crime occurred.

How Common is Unlawful Arrest?

Establishing exact data on false or unlawful arrests is difficult, as no government agency is tasked with tracking these cases. However, information from projects like the National Registry of Exonerations allows us to make some inferences. While the Registry focuses on wrongful convictions rather than arrests, it also reveals something about the widespread nature of wrongful arrests. Since its founding in 2012, the registry has recorded over 2,100 exonerations in the U.S. This number, plus a cursory search of false arrest cases online indicates that the numbers of false arrest cases are quite high, likely tens of thousands annually in the U.S. These arrests result in lost wages, stress on families, and costly lawsuits against municipalities.

Establishing an Unlawful Arrest Claim

It is important to remember that unlawful arrest means that an arrest has occurred without probable cause—NOT that the arrestee is innocent. To claim false arrest, one is asserting that the arresting officer did not allow the arrestee to leave the scene without facing physical retaliation; that the arresting officer intentionally detained the arrestee without probable cause to do so; and that the arresting officer did not have a legitimate reason for making the arrest. Any determination of unlawful arrest is typically made at trial, when the facts surrounding the arrest are reviewed in detail. If you believe you’ve been falsely arrested, it is essential to inform your defense attorney of all facts surrounding the arrest so they may better represent your interests in court.

Should you or a loved one be the victim of unlawful arrest, they will still need some form of bail before being released. Contact Bond James Bond Inc. who can assist in quickly posting bail.

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