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How Long Can Police Detain You in California?

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2023 | Civil Rights

Interacting with law enforcement is generally avoided by most people in their day-to-day lives. However, whether from a traffic stop, walking down the street, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could cause a law enforcement officer to question you. Many people don’t realize, however, that these interactions are protected by your Fourth Amendment rights, which govern illegal search and seizure. During interactions with police, they are only legally allowed to stop you without an arrest for as long as it is necessary to confirm that a crime has or has not been committed. Any time beyond that is considered unlawful detainment.

Understanding the difference between detainment and arrest can help ensure that your rights are protected and that you know what you can do if violations occur.

Detention vs. Arrest

Most people who interact with the police will be detained and not arrested. The main difference between the two is that detention does not prevent you from having freedom of movement. In other words, there is no physical restraint used, such as handcuffs, during your interactions. An arrest can only occur if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. If this does not exist, then any unlawful detainment or arrest could be considered false imprisonment or false arrest.

There are two specific types of interactions that could result in detainment by law enforcement:

  • Terry Stop: This occurs when an officer believes a crime has been committed and wishes to investigate. Often, the investigation will include two basic actions. The first is stopping you and the second is frisking. Sometimes, this is referred to as stop and frisk. This interaction must be reasonable in length and will likely only last a short period.
  • Traffic Stop: During a traffic stop, both the driver and passenger may be detained (forced to remain at the scene) until the officer has determined that a moving violation or other infraction has occurred. This could include suspicion of substances in the vehicle as well. Again, the detention may only last as long as the officer needs to reasonably conclude whether a crime has or has not been committed.

While police have the right to question and investigate, it must be reasonable to both the suspected crime and the amount of time it takes to determine if that crime has occurred.

Unlawful Detention

Unlawful detention can and does happen. It is considered such when your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated in any one of the following ways:

  • Using false information to obtain a search or arrest warrant
  • Unlawfully arresting you
  • Being detained for an unreasonable cause
  • Being detained for a period that is considered excessive
  • Using excessive force during restraint or arrest

If evidence of a crime is found while you are being detained, an officer has a right to continue that detainment. However, the amount of time before you are arrested or released must be considered reasonable.

Actions You Can Take

If you feel that you have been the victim of unlawful detainment, you have several actions that can be taken. The first step should be to file a complaint against the officer. The complaint will remain a part of the officer’s record and could become one piece of the bigger picture of the officer’s specific conduct. The officer could face a reprimand, suspension, or termination of employment, depending on the circumstances or any previous incidents.

If your unlawful detainment resulted in a criminal arrest, your criminal defense attorney could file a motion with the court to have any evidence related to the unlawful detainment excluded as evidence against you. While not a guarantee, this could lead to your charges being dropped.

Another option you have is to file an injunction against the officer or department, asking them to take specific actions such as retraining, changing policies, or even moving an officer to another department so that they have less interaction with the public.

Finally, you can seek monetary damages for violations of your civil rights. An attorney can help you understand what you may be entitled to.


Q: How Long Can You Be Detained Without Charges in California?

A: An officer may detain you for as long as necessary to determine if a crime has been committed or to conduct a legal search. While this can work differently in every situation, it must be considered reasonable. If you are held without arrest beyond a reasonable amount of time, it could be considered unlawful detainment.

Q: Can You Record While Being Detained in California?

A: The First Amendment grants the right for the public to record police officers. However, there are stipulations. Recording a police officer must be done in the open and not in secret. They must know they are being recorded. The filming, however, may not obstruct the officer’s ability to conduct the duties of their job, or you could face obstruction charges.

Q: What Does It Mean to Be Detained in California?

A: Being detained by a police officer means that there is a suspicion of a crime, and the officer feels that you may be involved. However, they do not have evidence to conduct an arrest, and detaining you is a part of the process to determine if an arrest is warranted. However, you are not physically restricted as you are during an arrest.

Q: What Rights Do Citizens in the U.S. Have When They Are Detained?

A: If you are detained, you have the same rights as you would if you were arrested. You have the right to remain silent and not answer any questions that law enforcement asks you. Because you are not arrested, you may not be read your Miranda rights, so know that your rights are still protected and that you have a right to an attorney to protect you.

California Civil Rights Attorney

Unlawful detention is a violation of the rights granted to you by the Constitution. If you feel you have been unlawfully held by law enforcement, contact the team at Exum Law Offices today. We can help you navigate your options and answer any questions you may have.