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Detaining Individuals at the Scene of a Search

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 75 Issue: 12 Dated: December 2006 Pages: 16-25
Carl A. Benoit J.D.
Date Published
December 2006
10 pages
This article examines the authority of police officers to detain people present at the scene of a search and the degree of force that may be used against them.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the authority of police officers to use a reasonable amount of force to detain people who are present at the scene of a search warrant. According to Court rulings, police officers who are executing a search warrant on a location may detain: (1) individuals present at the location of the search; (2) individuals leaving the scene of a search at or immediately before the execution of the warrant; and (3) individuals who arrive at the scene of a search as it is being executed. However, any individuals who are detained at the scene of a search must be “easily identifiable” to police officers by their connection to the location being searched. Detaining individuals is viewed as necessary by the Supreme Court to minimize the risk of flight, to ensure the safety of officers, and to ensure the search is completed in an orderly manner. The Supreme Court has also ruled on the amount of force police officers may use to detain individuals found at the scene of a search. In the case of Muehler v. Mena, the Court found that handcuffing detainees at the scene of a search warrant might be reasonable if there was a specific safety risks involved, such as if the warrant involved a search for weapons or contraband. The Court was careful to iterate that handcuffing individuals at the scene of a search should not be done as a matter of routine and should not be used for prolonged amounts of time. Given the categorical authority that police officers enjoy for detaining occupants present at the scene of a search warrant, it would be prudent for police departments to plan their search warrants by, for example, assigning an officer the role of maintaining control over detainees at the scene. Endnotes