Are Cops Allowed to Break the Law to Enforce It? 

It is not uncommon to wonder if police officers can infringe laws to do their jobs. Countless television shows such as C.S.I., Law & Order, and True Detective demonstrate how sometimes cops break the rules to get the job done. But, in reality, things are a little trickier.  

Are Cops Allowed to Break the Law to Enforce It? 

Technically, a cop (like any other righteous citizen) is never allowed to break the law to enforce it. However, there are some exceptions, such as undercover missions or extenuating circumstances in which cops can bend the rules. 

In the unlikely event that a police officer breaks the law while on duty, there are ways in which they can explain or justify their actions. But, this does not mean that their behavior will not have legal consequences.  

Situations in Which Cops Can Bend the Rules 

As explained above, police officers and law enforcers are never permitted to break the law. Nonetheless, there are cases in which the end justifies the means, and their actions could be excused at a court of law.  

Additionally, it is essential to know that specific laws do not apply to on-duty cops. Below we will go over different scenarios where police officers can engage in unlawful actions that regular civilians are not allowed without sanctions. For instance, a police officer is permitted to: 

– Fire a gun if the situation asks for it.  

– Lie for the sake of getting a confession.  

– Trick a suspect into leaving his/her D.N.A. for analysis. 

– Surpass the speed limit in case of an emergency.  

In other words, when it is in the general interest of public safety, a cop can bypass certain regulations. But, to avoid the excessive use of force or the abuse of power, there are usually rules to counterbalance those situations. For example, a cop can fire a gun at a fleeing suspect, but not if that person is running through a crowded area. Or a police officer can exceed the speed limit on a given road if it is not at a speed that could create a hazard to other drivers. 

If a detainment is not handled as required by law, a murderer can get free. For example, if a police officer unlawfully detains someone for drug possession or stolen property and other evidence of crime arises during that detention, the evidence is automatically contaminated. As stated by the Fourth Amendment, that evidence is inadmissible in court as it was found in the course of an illegal act of action by the cop or agent that handled the detention. In these cases, if the police department does not follow the rules, then the Department Attorney might not have a case. 

Are Cops Allowed to Break the Law to Enforce It? 

In 2006, this happened in Salt Lake City when a Narcotics detective was investigating an alleged drug den that he was informed about through an anonymous informant. For about a week, the detective noted people were coming and going, usually only staying for a short time. Seemingly, these stops meant people would go into the house to buy drugs and then leave. When the detective saw a man leaving the house, he chased him and illegally stopped him in a parking lot close to the den.  

After calling in the suspect’s information, a routine procedure, the detective realized that the suspect had a pending arrest warrant due to a traffic violation. Based on this, the officer sought out the suspect and found methamphetamine, accusing him of possession as well. 

However, given that the evidence was obtained illegally, it was never admitted in court.  

After this case, the Supreme Court ruled that, in certain circumstances, evidence found during illegal detentions could be used in court proceedings— only if an officer makes an unlawful arrest but has probable cause.  

Furthermore (according to the same sentence), if the evidence the officer finds is not directly related to the initial detention, the suspect might be charged.  

Police Officers Are Legally Allowed To Lie 

It might not be considered as breaking the law per se— but police officers can (and will) lie to you. Trickery does not invalidate a confession at a court of law. Nonetheless, in extreme cases, a court must determine if the deception resulted in a false confession.  

Some common law enforcement’s lies and tricks include: 

Lying about having physical evidence

A cop may lie about having physical evidence, including fingerprints or D.N.A. In television shows, police officers run tests on evidence and things found at the scene of a crime almost instantly. However, in reality, crime labs are usually notoriously backlogged. Hence, it is improbable for a police officer to have compelling physical evidence at the time of interrogation. 

Tricking suspects into giving away their D.N.A. or fingerprints

If a person is arrested for a serious felony, a D.N.A. swab is usually part of the standard booking routine. However, cops might also trick suspects into surrendering their D.N.A. by offering them a beverage or something to eat.  

A decisive D.N.A. match to an active crime scene is sufficient for an arrest and a charge. Thus, if an officer can trick a suspect into getting a sample of their D.N.A., it can make or break their case.  

Giving false test results (i.e.,polygraphs, lab tests)

Police officers can run, for example, fake polygraph tests. In some cases, the machine does not even work correctly. However, the psychological effect it has on someone who is being questioned is sometimes enough to get a confession out of them.  

The same goes for saying they have D.N.A. results that prove someone was at the scene of a crime or near a murder weapon.  

Lying about having eyewitnesses or an accomplice’s confession

It is very common for a police officer to indicate that there is an eye witness that puts a suspect at the scene of the crime or near the victim. Or saying that an accomplice confessed to committing a crime. Nonetheless, this might not be true. More so, generally, there is no witness, and so cops must find another way of solving the case.  

Lying about having your best interest in mind

Probably one of the most used lies is telling a suspect that you have their best interest in mind. In some cases, law enforcers will even say that if you cooperate, they will help you carve out time from your sentence if convicted. In reality, they might not have the authority to make that decision. Plus, the only thing an officer cares about is enforcing the law.  

Can cops be colorblind? Check out this article:

Why are cops allowed to speed? 

Are Cops Allowed to Break the Law to Enforce It? 

The short answer is no. Law enforcement officers are not above traffic laws and regulations. However, as mentioned before, an on-duty copy could surpass the maximum speed limit if he/she is tailing a suspect or offender.  

Nonetheless, cops are expected to use discretion when determining if a routine response or an emergency response is required. In the event, that an emergency response is needed (i.e., surpassing the speed limit to catch a suspect) there are three main things to look out for: 

– The emergency lights must be on 

– The squad car’s sirens must be on.  

As a result, all emergency vehicles (including police cars) are allowed to go over the speed limit safely if the situation requires it. Meaning that an officer, under no circumstances, can put civilians at risk while speeding.  

So, if you witness a police officer speeding without lights on, sirens on, or driving recklessly in a high-traffic area, you must call the police department and report the incident. And keep in mind that by law, no cop in regular situations is allowed to speed or ignore traffic rules.  

Undercover Operations 

Undercover operations are a big “gray area” when it comes to cops breaking the rules. It is not uncommon for law enforcement to use secret agents as a way of fighting crime (primarily organized crime.) However, this does not mean that those agents can, or are expected, to break the law.  

Hence, here is where it ceases to be a “black” or “white” scenario. When it comes to undercover operations, exceptions can and will be made on a case by case basis.  

Therefore, a special agent might be legally allowed to commit certain crimes if it helps catch a hard criminal. But, note that before an undercover cop can incur in any type of criminal activity, he/she must get prior approval from their supervisor. Usually, these types of permissions are granted before the mission starts.  

In the case where approval to commit a crime or perform an illegal activity is not obtained, undercover agents cannot violate the law. Nonetheless, most agents are often given broad authorization to commit crimes that might be “unforeseen” if they believe doing so is necessary to their continuing investigation. In those particular cases, the guidelines note that permission to commit the crime can be “retroactively authorized if appropriate.”  

All police departments and law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) and the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), have in-depth guidelines. Each is detailing what is permitted (or not) within an undercover mission.  

Scenarios Where a Police Officer Can Use Deadly Force 

Just as undercover operations have strict guidelines of what is lawfully right for an agent to do, there are plenty of guidelines for the use of force by police. Overall, determining whether or not to use deadly force is discretional — meaning that it boils down to what the officer believed was the right thing to do.  

Therefore, if an on-duty police officer kills someone, there is regularly two channels of investigation: 

  1. As stated by the law and supervised by the Supreme Court where all the circumstances related to the event are subject to investigation to determine if the officer acted appropriately. 
  2. Defined by the police officer’s department where enforcers are told when it is and isn’t appropriate for them to use force.

Consequently, the key to both of these legal standards is that it does not matter whether there is a threat at the moment of the shooting. Instead, what is essential is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there was a threat. 

But, if a cop murders someone in cold blood or without a valid reason, he/she would be undoubtedly breaking the law and his employee handbook.  

Police Misconduct 

As we explained above, police officers must always abide by the rules. If they do not, it is considered police misconduct. In a nutshell, police misconduct is the term used when an officer is involved in illegal actions in connection with their official duties. A few examples of police misconduct include: 

  • Intimidation 
  • Witness tampering 
  • Excessive use of force 
  • Police brutality 
  • Falsification/tampering of evidence 
  • False arrest 
  • Coerced confession 
  • Racial profiling 
  • Corruption 
  • Unwarranted searches, seizures, or surveillance 
  • And more 

According to reports, the U.S. has lost millions to police misconduct. Between the years 2010 and 2014, the state of Chicago had $521 million in costs to police misconduct settlements, making it one of the states with the highest levels of police officers breaking the law.  

Are Cops Allowed to Break the Law to Enforce It? 

But, according to the Huffington Post, the most expensive group police misconduct settlement case ever awarded took place in New York. The case was known as “Central Park Five.” It included five men who were victims of police torture that resulted in false confessions and ultimate convictions. These men settled for $41 Million.  

The United States is not the only country that has high police misconduct rates. Other countries, including China, Brazil, India, and France, all have the same problem.  

Therefore, as a means to control police misconduct, there is a crescent trend for civilian agencies to engage directly in police investigations and to have higher inputs into disciplinary decisions. Additionally, in the last decade, more individuals and groups have made it their job to hold police officers accountable for their actions using videos and other outlets such as social media. 

Wrapping It Up 

In conclusion, police officers and law enforcers, in general, must always abide by the rules and regulations (just as any other righteous citizen would do.) Failure to do so will have legal consequences that can even result in the arrest or conviction of an officer.  

But, as always, there are some clear exemptions, including special operations, undercover missions, extenuating circumstances. Thus, in the cases mentioned above, usually, departments establish case by case regulations or guidelines.  

Lastly, know that there are stringent rules to protect citizens from police misconduct and police abuse. So, if you ever witness an illegal action from a police officer, you have all the right to report him or her to the authorities.  

Related Questions

Below a few of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to police officers and regulations: 

Can a police officer go to jail?

Police officers can and will go to jail if they commit a crime. More so, recent studies reveal that hundreds of cops are arrested annually for the same crimes they are supposed to be thwarting. Additionally, according to reports, 41% of the total crimes are usually committed while on duty.  

The most common reasons why police officers are arrested include: 

  • Sex-related crimes 
  • Alcohol and drug-related crimes 
  • Violence or excessive use of force-related crimes 
  • Profit-motivated crimes  

Moreover, 95% of the time, the officers who are arrested are male. In other words, male police officers are arrested at a far higher rate than their fellow female officers. Lastly, know that approximately 72% of arrest cases resulted in a conviction. Thus, police officers must obey the law, just like any other citizen.  

Can an off-duty cop make an arrest?

The vast majority of law enforcement officers are reliable and dedicated citizens who recognize that their jobs are not a 9-to-5 type of job. Hence, the off-duty cop could feel the need to make an arrest if the situation presents itself.  

Nonetheless, there is a myriad of things to be considered. For instance, just because someone is a police officer does not mean that they are acting under the color of the law. Thus, the officer faces the possibility of being sued for his/her actions. Additionally, off-duty officers usually do not have the same equipment available to them (e.g., squad cars, radios, uniforms) — putting them at high risk.  

Therefore, depending on the situation, the state’s regulation, and level of commitment, an off-duty cop could make an arrest. But, that does not mean it will not have legal repercussions.  

 What is the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”? 

“Probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” are two concepts that law enforcement uses to determine whether or not to detain, question, search, or make an arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court dictates the standards for “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” — and while they have fundamental differences, it might be hard at times to differentiate the two.  

“Reasonable suspicion” is the less strict standard and, at best, can lead to detaining suspects. “Probable cause” includes specific facts and proofs that demonstrate that a suspect is committing or has committed a crime. Thus, “probable cause” has a higher level of severity. 

Related Articles

Do Ambulance Drivers Have a Speed Limit?

To learn how to best prepare and study for your police exam click here.

For more information about the civil service be sure to check out our free guide here: 

Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.