How long police can detain you in Pennsylvania generally depends on the situation. Police are only allowed to detain a person for a “reasonable” time under the law. However, “reasonable” varies on a case-by-case basis. To better understand the amount of time a detainment can last and what constitutes reasonable, it’s helpful to know what it means to be detained by a police officer.
Detain vs. Arrest
Detention and arrest are different. While both involve a person being held by police and unable to leave, only one of them involves the intent to charge you with a crime.
When an officer detains someone, they hold a person for some time to investigate what they believe are suspicious circumstances. Being detained means you are not free to leave at will, but you are not under arrest either. Police use your detainment as a chance to ask questions, confer with other law enforcement members, gather information, or search for answers. To detain someone, all that is needed is “reasonable suspicion.” The officer must suspect that some sort of illegal activity has taken place or is likely to take place.
In contrast, when an officer arrests someone, they are placing that person in police custody with the intent of charging them with a crime. For an arrest to be made, the police must have probable cause. The officer must have facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect committed a crime.
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Police Cannot Detain You for an Unreasonable Amount of Time
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Unfortunately, that great document does not define what “unreasonable” means. Defining the term “unreasonable” is generally left up to the states. Within each state, the state courts must make the decision.
Holding a person for an excessive amount of time is considered an unreasonable seizure but what is considered excessive is relative to the situation. For instance, if an officer suspects a woman is driving while intoxicated because her car was swaying back and forth, the officer may detain her. But if the officer finds that she is sober and that a bug flew into her eye, causing her to swerve in her car, it would be unreasonable to hold her longer to investigate drunk driving.
On the other hand, if the police are called because a neighbor saw a strange man enter the house next door while the owners were away, it would not be unreasonable to detain him for a few hours while they investigate his identity and right to be at the house. Generally, detention should not last longer than necessary to investigate the cause of the officer’s suspicion and either validate or invalidate their concerns.
Unlawful detention violates your civil rights and could result in disciplinary action against the offending police officers, an injunction against the police department, or a civil suit for monetary damages.
The problem is, sometimes, you may not know whether you’re being detained. The officers may not inform you when placing you into custody. If you don’t know, they may allege that your detainment was voluntary because you did not simply leave when they never said you couldn’t.
The simple solution is to ask, “Am I free to leave?” If the officers say “yes,” you can walk away. If they say “no,” you are being detained. It may be unlawful detention if you ask, and they do not tell you.
How Long Can I Be Held Without Charges in Pennsylvania?
Police officers who have probable cause may make an arrest, but that does not mean they can hold the suspect indefinitely. In some cases, the police have already obtained a warrant to arrest a suspect before doing so. Under those circumstances, the prosecutor has already brought charges against the suspect in a court of law.
In other circumstances, the police may arrest a person immediately based on probable cause. This means they have not obtained a warrant for the arrest. However, in these situations, they do not need to obtain a warrant, which means there are no formal charges against the suspect yet.
Pennsylvania law does not specify a time limit on how long a suspect can be held in custody but bars “unnecessary delay” between arrest and arraignment. Typically, police can only hold someone under arrest for up to 48 hours without a charge. That does not include weekends or holidays.
If no charges are brought within that time frame, they must let you go unless there is some necessary delay that prolongs it. Remember that police can obtain a warrant and arrest you later.
What to Do if You are Detained by Police or Arrested?
Whether detained for investigation or placed under arrest, you always have rights. You have the right to remain silent. To avoid incriminating yourself, you should exercise this right.
If you feel answering questions will alleviate the officer’s suspicions, you can answer them, but be careful. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You don’t have to answer questions, and you can refuse to consent to any searches the police try to conduct. It is illegal for an officer to search you or your possessions without a warrant or consent.
It’s important that you only use words in refusing searches and questions. Never resist or get physical with a police officer, and do not lie. Instead, you can refuse questions or searches and ask for a lawyer..
Call the Law Offices of MJ Snyder for Criminal Defense in Pennsylvania
A criminal defense attorney can protect your rights and help you fight any charges against you. That’s where the Law Offices of MJ Snyder can help. We have the manpower, resources, and experience to build a compelling defense for criminal charges.
Call us today to schedule a free consultation. If you are uncertain about your future in the face of a possible conviction, we can help you understand your legal options.